Oak Ridge National Laboratory

 

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Nanotechnology could lead to next industrial revolution

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., July 12, 1995 — Most people are taught to think big, but some researchers at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are thinking small - real small.

A group of scientists in ORNL's Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division are focusing on building machines at the atomic level. These microscopic devices, designed and built atom by atom, may one day play a role in environmental restoration or in treating illnesses. Theoretically, they could travel through the bloodstream to cure diseases or could attack contaminants in soil or water.

"Over the past 15 years, prominent scientists like Noble Laureate Richard Feynman, Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle have hypothesized about these mechanical machines," said Don Noid, co-author of a proposal that helped gain seed money for the project last year. "Now, ORNL is modeling nanomachines using fundamental calculations."

Noid and colleagues Bobby Sumpter and Robert Tuzun perform these calculations using computational chemistry and techniques developed at ORNL. Their work comes alive through the advanced visualization techniques provided by Ross Toedte of ORNL's Center for Computational Sciences. Essentially, Toedte "makes movies based on our calculations about how these machines would perform," Noid said.

Noid and Sumpter believe ORNL is uniquely qualified to pursue this growing field of research. They are part of a team that has expertise in computers, mathematics, physics and chemistry - disciplines needed before Toedte's visualizations can show nanotechnology isn't just a topic for science fiction writers. As Sumpter and Noid explain it, nanomachines are merely mechanical versions of their biological counterparts, such as viruses.

"We're not breaking any basic laws of science," Noid says. "This is scientifically sound. All we're doing is putting together different atoms with chemical bonds that exist in nature."

Using computer modeling, the team has simulated how fluids flow through nanomachines. They have also designed a simple graphite bearing and shaft composed of about 4,000 atoms, which is relatively few considering the millions of atoms that can fit on the head of the proverbial pin. By studying these models, researchers hope to demonstrate that they can eventually build nanomachines, which Noid predicts will lead to the next "industrial revolution."

"Machines start with simple components such as rods and bearings," Sumpter said. "We would like to investigate through computer modeling and simulation whether primitive components - atomic-scale gears and bearings - could be made and successfully used to perform useful functions."

Funding has been a problem for the project because even the most optimistic proponents believe nanomachines will not be built until early next century. Nevertheless, Noid and Sumpter are convinced that their basic science approach using computational chemistry is a sound way to investigate these devices. They also believe ORNL is an ideal place to conduct the research that could lead to revolutionary new opportunities in chemistry, materials science, biology and other fields.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram national research and development facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, which also manages the Oak Ridge K-25 Site and the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant.