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Harnessing science of the very small

Anand Parthasarathy

India's research edge may help it to stay ahead in the global race to exploit nanotechnology

EQUIPPED TO EXPLORE: Micro electronic profiling system at the Veeco-India nanotechnology laboratory, Bangalore.

HOW DOES the colour of the peacock's feather explain the exciting new world of nanotechnology? Only President Abdul Kalam, with his unmatched flair for simplifying science, could think of the connection.

Walking in the Mughal Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was struck by the brilliant colours of the feathers sported by dancing peacocks. The long lasting colours come from nano materials coated on the feather, and they defract light to give us the rich colours.

This was the President's way of beginning a major address last year, to Indian Naval officers of the Weapons and Electronic System Engineering Establishments (WESEE). His theme: India's future lies in nanotechnology.

Huge world market

The world market for nanomaterials, nanodevices and nanobiotechnology is worth over 100 billion dollars, he said. Nanotubes made out of carbon can create super strong materials. Tomorrow's computers will use the technology for ultra dense memories, and nanobiomedical sensors will revolutionalise drug delivery systems, Dr. Kalam added.

His suggestion that India was ideally placed to exploit her rich resources in nanotechnology was not lost on the government of the day. Eight months later, the Union Budget created a national mission in nanotechnology. C.N.R Rao whom President Kalam credits with pioneering nanoscience research in India announced in Bangalore last month, that four new nanoscience centres would be established in the country this year, adding to the eight already established in the last two years.

Prof. Rao was speaking at the inauguration of the newest nanoscale research facility — the Veeco-India Nanotechnology Laboratory established at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, in Bangalore.

The lab was made possible by generous inputs from the US-based Veeco Instruments, a leading supplier of instrumentation to the nanoscience community. Instrumentation placed in the new lab include the latest in Veeco's range of Atomic Force Microscopes (AFMs), Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), and a number of other optical profiling and measuring instruments, which will allow Indian researchers to visualise at sub-nanometre resolutions.

Veeco is already a major supplier of metrology and process equipment to the semi-conductor, data storage and biotech industries. And their Executive Vice President John Bulman was confident that placing these cutting-edge tools in the hands of Indian scientists would make this country a serious contender for leadership in the nanospace.

Outsourcing research

In another interesting development, the U.K based Cientifica, a leading provider of nanotechnology information and consultancy services announced earlier this week that it would be outsourcing some crucial research tasks in this frontier arena, to India-based partners, including three national research institutions.

Lay members of the public might be confused at the frequency with which the `nano' tag is being invoked by anybody who wants to foster an image of up to the minute technology.

The prefix nano comes from the Greek word, which means dwarf. It is used when talking of an order of magnitude, which is one-billionth of the standard. For example, one nanometre is one billionth of a metre. This is approximately the length of 6 atoms placed side by side or the width of a single strand of DNA. The thickness of a human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nanometres.

Tighter packaging

The term nanometre crops up most frequently these days when referring to the tighter and tighter packaging of transistors on a computer chip. Currently, most consumer chips like the Pentium are made to a manufacturing tolerance of 90 nanometres; in other words, this is the gap that separates two electrically-conducting lines.

Two years ago, this gap was 130 nanometres. Next year, it will be down to 60 nanometres and so on, effectively increasing the number of active devices in a matchbox-size slab of silicon to nearly 100 million.

Flowing from these nanometre measurements is nanotechnology — a technology which enables the means to construct or use, something on a nanoscale. The industry understands nanotechnology to mean handling or controlling parts smaller than 100 nanometres in width.

Nanotubes, the other over-used buzzword, means tubes that are cylinders with a hollow centre, with nanoscale dimensions. The commonest application is carbon nanotubes, which exhibit unique electrical properties and great strength.

One reason why nanotechnology seems to be everywhere is that carbon nanotubes can tremendously boost the strength of a variety of products from automobile tyres to tennis balls, and materials for space travel.

A self-contained manufacturing system known as molecular manufacturing is one offshoot of nanotechnology. Scientists expect that molecular manufacturing at the level of a molecule using nanoscale techniques is less than 10 years away.

It may then give rise to what are being called `tabletop factories' where materials 100 times stronger than steel or computers using a million times less power than today, can be fabricated in very small spaces.

It is hardly surprising that such nanomaterials are proving fascinating for the world's military-scientific establishments. Indeed, this is one of the fears held out by think-tanks like the NewYork-based Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology ( .

Tiny mobile robots

The centre warns that taken to its logical conclusion, one could build a variety of smart materials like tiny mobile robots, which can be produced in millions and sent in advance of armies to descend on enemy terrain like so many locusts. Michael Crichton, first broached the possibility of a cloud of nanoparticles programmed to behave like predators, in his 2002 novel Prey.

Warriors skilled in the ancient Malabar art of Kalaripayattu, use one weapon with care and respect: the coiled flexible sword, or `urumi'.

Handled carefully, it can dispatch dozens of opponents, but one false move and you could end up chopping your own limbs. Nanotechnology may well turn out to be 21st century's `urumi'. A powerful tool — but only if used right.

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