I just listened in on a news conference where Rick Smalley promised America some more Tang for its buck. NASA recently rained 11 million of them down on his Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory at Rice University.
But is it really about space at all? At today's news conference, the professor said it out loud. His goal over the next few years is to "get to the point where I can hold in my hands an armchair buckytube quantum wire."
Looks like the space program will boldly take him where "nano-energy" failed him before. Smalley's previous attempts to rally the nation around nanotech -- through energy following the big blackout almost two years ago -- never really caught on. There, too, he used the national focus on energy to try to win funding for his quantum wire project.
This is America, of course, where the profit motive usually goes hand-in-hand with the progress motive. So, there is nothing at all wrong with Smalley advancing his own business interests through government grants. It simply needs to be pointed out.
So, finally, he found his funds in the final frontier. What really cool space stuff are we going to do with this miracle molecule? WE'RE GOING TO MAKE ... ARE YOU READY FOR IT, AMERICA? WE'RE GOING TO CREATE ...
... a power cable.
But the world's strongest power cable, made entirely of carbon nanotubes. (Which I'm sure Smalley's company would be more than happy to provide).
Yep. Well, Dr. Smalley is no John Kennedy.
That's not to diminish the technological breakthroughs this four-year mission will achieve ... for Dr. Smalley and his company, that is, which not coincidentally claims a dominant position in nanotube intellectual property, including this key one on how to grow the stuff. Smalley's company is waiting for the right moment to send out its lawyers against the competition.
Not all nanotubes were created equal, and the current, clumsy way of cooking them produces too many varieties. It's the "armchair" flavor that he needs for his wires and, Smalley said today, "we won't rest until we get them all armchairs."
The method to be developed is to grow them from "seeds" that tell the tubes exactly how they are to grow. To make each tube grow in a predictable way, well that would be much better ... for Smalley's business.
Not a bad way to get some government dough to benefit your company while also wrapping it in an American flag. He's making just one mistake, though.
Dr. Smalley did not ask my advice, but I'll give it away for free. I have a better idea for a project that will not only advance the science but will also capture America's imagination a la Kennedy.
Update: I'm glad I pointed out that Smalley's private company stands to gain from this deal, because his hometown paper ignored it. Remember, members of the media, don't be so awed by the cool science that you forget how to be news reporters covering a straight business story. Get out of this "nanotech is cool" or "nanotech is dangerous" frame of mind. That's the dog and pony show that only distracts from the hard work of real reporting. These nanotech players have had it too easy with those simplistic stories. What is happening now will set nanotech's course well into this century. Who are the players? What are their goals? Who's driving the vision, and for what reasons? Who stands to gain and will rise to positions of prominence and power when the nanodust settles?
Another update: Here's Wired on the nanowires, with essentially a one-source transcript of the news conference, quoting the NanoGod's self-worship of his "miracle polymer."
Company Plans To Build Space Elevator (AP)
Control Over Nanowires "Growth": An article from: Energy Optimization News