Tuesday, April 26, 2005

An armchair nanotube quarterback

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.

This might be as close as nanotech gets to a "we choose to go to the moon" style goal, and it's at least a step in the right direction when it comes to capturing public imagination.

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.

Power cables?

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.

Going up?

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."

Related News
Company Plans To Build Space Elevator (AP)

The Springfield Syndrome
Nano knowledge is power
Got the world on a string

Control Over Nanowires "Growth": An article from: Energy Optimization News


Rocky Rawstern said...

Howard, you are spot on with the reference to LiftPort and the Space Elevator. Our country (and the world for that matter) could use another burst of enthusiasm similar to what President Kennedy provided with his “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” goal. While I am all for cutting the ties that bind us to non-renewable energy sources (and all the crap that comes with), I think we need a nation-wide/world-wide energizer similar to the 1960’s moon mission. Either that, or pump some serious bucks into Naomi Halas’ budget, and make cancer a nuisance rather than a virtual death sentence.

Howard Lovy said...

Halas might have some serious competition over in Singapore, where Dr Yi-Yan Yang has found a way to make smart drug delivery even smarter. His nanoshells respond not only to changes in temperature, but also in pH levels. Tumor tissues are more acidic, so a change in pH would raise alarms where Halas' shells would just cruise on by. That will get the drugs into deep tissues or cell compartments without the need to cook 'em up. That's been one flaw in Halas' technology, an inability to go where you can't zap the shells.

Anyway, you can bet that serious bucks will go to Halas and other leading cancer researchers. I've noticed that the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer has significantly improved its Web site, and the nanotech "breakthrough of the week" seems to always involve cancer these days.

Is that enough of a national goal to really get the nation pumped up about nano? Of course, the logical answer is that it should be. However, the reality is that increased lifespans and cancer survival rates will happen over time, and future generations will notice the change. Where's the moment of triumph? Where's the "one small step for man"?


Anonymous said...

These days it seems people (in the US anyway) are against space in general. The X-Prize didn't quite generate as much interest in the commoners as I thought it would. Nobody cares about a giant camera in orbit. Shuttle launches are taken as a common event unless disaster strikes it. People just don't seem interested in spending the money on something they can't touch or interact with. Ask someone about going to Mars and they're likely to respond with "Why spend money on that? We've got enough problems here that need money."

I suppose we can't really be blamed. Back in the 1950's we were afraid of the Russians doing anything neater than what we were doing, so it was important to get to the moon before them. Maybe if more people were aware that the Chinese are on the verge of starting their moonbase people would be more excited to do something space related. These days, though, space stuff is very common. You'd need something spectacular to get people really interested. Like life on Mars.

Being the cynic that I am I'd say that the baser nature of all of us needs to be enticed. Free energy (I say this because I just say my electric bill), perhaps. Or a perfomance car that doesn't need fuel. A free high speed internet. Something along those lines might generate interest.

Anonymous said...

Power cables? Cool! We can hook one to the satellite at the top of the Space elevator and use it to pump energy down to Earth. Oh, wait, the lifter cables will already do that. Never mind.