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There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom – But How Do You Know How Much?

I'm grateful for this opportunity to address NEMI's 2002 road-mapping workshop.

It's now 42 years and a few odd months since Richard Feynman famously told an audience of the American Physical Society that there was "room at the bottom" for exploration, discovery, and fame in the world of what we now call "nanotechnology".

He was amazingly prophetic. He talked about how being able to actually look at and manipulate strands of DNA and RNA would help solve fundamental problems of biology, how you might build computer circuits by sticking strings of atoms together to make wires, how maybe you could build tiny robot surgeons to travel through blood vessels.

He also talked about how perhaps you could use tiny microscopic antennas to create beams of high-intensity light all traveling in the same direction, but that "perhaps such a beam is not very useful technically or economically," which just goes to show that no one is right about everything. The first optical laser was demonstrated the next year.

This stuff was really pretty visionary – in fact, completely blue sky – when Feynman said it, but in physics and electronics, 42 years is a long time. Nanotechnology now has a name, an Initiative, a budget, and results.

And while it's perhaps not quite ready for a place in the NEMI Roadmap, I think we all would agree that that day is coming up fast.

To help you in thinking about that day, I'd like to take a few minutes this evening to brief you on the NIST research programs in nanotechnology – how we look at it, where we're going with it, and why.

How important do we think nanotechnology will be to the future of NIST? Very, very important.

NIST has been engaged for a while now in a long-term strategic planning exercise to map out our priorities and goals for the next decade. As part of that effort, we have identified several Strategic Focus Areas in research, which you see here.

How do you get on that list? The Strategic Focus Areas are broad, cross-disciplinary areas in which we feel NIST as a whole has the greatest potential to improve its impact on productivity, market access, and public benefit. Moreover, they are areas that are aligned with long-term market trends and customer interests.

I would just note in passing that whereas NEMI has the potential to significantly impact all four of these topics, nanotechnology is the one that has the potential to significantly impact NEMI.

So what do we mean by "nanotechnology"? Dangerous question. I don't know if you've noticed, but when nanotechnology became a national buzzword, a lot of people discovered that it's what they'd been doing all along.

Nanotechnology is not really any one technology area – it's a category or a descriptor. Many technology areas are moving into the nanotech regime. And by that I mean the research and development of structures and devices on the scale of individual molecules and atoms – and exploiting the unique capabilities that come with working at that scale.

We expect the ability to engineer devices and materials at the nanoscale to have as much impact on early 21st century technology and the economy as did the emergence of semiconductor electronics and antibiotics in the last half of the 20th century. We expect nanotechnology to shape the future of many of our nation's core industries, and we expect that there will be nanotechnology products and services in most major industrial sectors in the near future.

We are not alone. A study last year by the National Science Foundation predicted a global market for nanotechnology in excess of $1 trillion annually within 10 years.

And make no mistake – in some areas true nanotechnology products are in the marketplace today. Nanophase Technologies in Illinois is one you may know. We know Nanophase because seven years ago they were a start-up company that received funding from our Advanced Technology Program to refine and scale-up a laboratory process developed at Argonne National Laboratory for producing uniform nanoscale particles from various materials.

Last year Nanophase produced nearly 550,000 pounds of nano-engineered powders that are used in applications from cosmetic sunscreens to polishing silicon wafers. So the potential economic impact is there, but what do we see as the unique NIST role in nanotechnology? What makes this a Strategic Focus Area?

Okay, I can't surprise this audience. Measurement is the answer, of course.

We really take to heart this famous dictum by Lord Kelvin. Measurement technology – metrology – is an important element in turning a laboratory innovation into a commercial enterprise.

Measurement helps get you from an empirical understanding of a phenomenon to a fundamental understanding.

Measurement is what allows you to control your manufacturing processes, holding down costs and improving yield.

The NSF may be right when they say that we'll see a $1 trillion nanotech market by 2011, but we'll need a strong metrology infrastructure to get there. And that's what we do. NIST's unique mission is to support industry – and general quality of life – through measurements, standards, and technology. The metrology infrastructure.

Feynman said, "There's room at the bottom," but NIST researchers like to ask, "How much?"

Metrology also is NIST's unique contribution to the National Nanotech Initiative, a multiagency initiative started last year to support long-tern government R&D leading to breakthroughs in nanotechnology for materials, manufacturing, health care, medicine, energy, and anything else that comes up.

The National Science and Technology Council has made the NNI a top national science and technology priority, and NIST's role is to provide the national metrology infrastructure needed to make nanoscience discoveries into nanotechnologies and products that affect people's lives and the economy.

Those of you who are familiar with the NNI know that it is a major initiative, including all of the major agencies. The NNI has a projected investment of $710 million in the next fiscal year.

In an effort to structure the problem, the NNI participants have defined so-called "Grand Challenges" – areas for potential breakthroughs that could provide major broad-based economic benefit to the U.S. and improve the quality of life. NIST leads the Grand Challenge in Instrumentation and Metrology, and is a major player in three other challenges shown here.

Our work can be characterized as nanoscale measurement science: measurements, standards and data that the private sector and other agencies need to support R&D and accelerate the production of nanotechnology-based products and services.

To give you an idea of our current level of effort, this is what our nanotechnology investment portfolio looks like today. This represents nearly forty million dollars of NIST's funding from appropriations and the NNI, and about ten million dollars from non-NIST sources. Sharp NEMI eyes will note significant investments in nanoelectronics and nanomagnetics, the latter of paramount importance to the data storage industry. Every major NIST lab has nanotechnology projects – nearly 100 nanotech-related projects in total. NIST's nanotech effort amounts to about six percent of the Federal government's nanotech research as reckoned by the NNI.

Commercial nanotechnology today is primarily in the materials industry, and that's reflected by a sizable investment there as well. Our research goal is to meet both the near-term measurement needs of emerging nanotechnology market opportunities and the less-predictable and longer-term needs of the nanotechnology research community.

We don't feel that this work is any too soon. A global nanotechnology industry, and large-scale commercial payoff, is certainly several years away, but once a technology is spawned commercial applications often grow at an exponential rate.

But enough theory. Let me give you some concrete examples of what we're working on.

One project that Feynman would really appreciate is the NIST Nanoscale Physics Facility, which you see here in both virtual diagram and reality.

"What would happen," Feynman asked in 1959, "if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?" It's a good question. Nanoelectronics, for example, falls in an interestingly gray area - mesophysics - on the border between quantum physics and classical physics. What happens there? We may be in for some significant surprises.

Here is where we're hoping to answer Feynman's question. This state-of-the-art facility incorporates a scanning tunneling microscope that can move individual atoms around on a surface, under computer control, to create a specified arrangement of atoms.

It was built to answer some of the fundamental physics questions important to nanoelectronics by probing the electronic and magnetic properties of matter on an atom-by-atom basis under a wide variety of conditions.

As I mentioned, nanomaterials is one of the current growth areas in commercial nanotechnology, and we have a considerable effort there.

One thing we're looking at is the incorporation of nanoscale particles of titanium dioxide in composites. Research suggests these could serve as photocatalysts, collecting energy from ultraviolet rays and generating free radicals that could neutralize certain harmful chemicals or bacteria - imagine self-sterilizing kitchen counters!

And NIST fire researchers are investigating the fire-resistant properties of new materials formed by reacting an organic resin with nanoscale clay particles. The nanocomposite shown here may soon yield a new class of fire retardants. Nanoparticles could be incorporated in other polymers to enhance stiffness and toughness.

In line with our emphasis on measurement, NIST is developing and applying technologies for measuring structure and composition at the nanoscale using x-ray, neutron, optical, and electron based probes. We also characterize the electrical, optical, magnetic and mechanical properties of a host of different nanomaterials.

The image you see here is an elemental composition map of a nanoparticle of manganese dioxide particle. Manganese is green, oxygen is blue, and a carbon support mesh is red. The image was made using imaging energy-filtered electron energy loss spectroscopy in a transmission electron microscope. The ability to map composition at the nanoscale is critical to assessing the homogeneity of the materials.

We are developing and using nanoscale metrology tools for controlling the integration and arrangements of nanostructures and the distribution of defects and impurities at the nanoscale.

In 1959 Feynman spoke of the possibility of actually looking at a DNA or RNA molecule to help unravel the mysteries of genetics. Today we're closing in on that in nanobiotechnology, another nanofield with amazing potential.

Proteins that form nanometer-scale openings – nanopores – are the mechanism for communicating within and between nerve cells. Similar structures play a role in exchangin genetic information between bacteria, in protein secretion across membranes, and in some types of viral infections.

We're looking at adapting nanopores as a tool for therapy, diagnostics, and biotech research. We are studying how different types of polymers are transported through nanometer scale pores, and as this slide illustrates, we have have demonstrated that individual molecules of single-strand DNA can be detected and characterized as they are driven through a single nanopore.

We have a multi-lab effort to develop measurement tools for single molecule manipulation and measurement - Feynman's vision - that could resolve significant inaccuracies in our current understanding of the human genome.

"But," you say, "what about electronics?"

I'm glad you asked. NIST has a long history in working on microelectronics problems, of course. Today we're developing critical measurement technologies for nanolithography and other emerging nanoelectronics technologies that industry will need if we're to realize further generations of "Moore's Law".

Here, for example, you see scanning electron microscope cross-sections showing nanoscale trenches in a silicon microelectronic device. The trenches have been filled with copper by electrodeposition, and the four sets of images represent different deposition conditions. "Superconformal" means they've been overfilled – you can see the bumps on the top surface of the copper layer.

We've done extensive work on modeling and improving the electrodeposition process that has been very well received by the semiconductor industry. The NIST group that did this work got a Department of Commerce gold medal for it last year, the highest award the department gives.

Some other things we are working on include nanoscale electrical test measurements for ultra-thin films and for molecular structures.

In fact, let's look at our new effort in molecular electronics for a moment. This is really exciting stuff.

The electronics industry is talking about the possibility of making devices where individual molecules perform the functions of electronic components. NIST's question, of course, is, "What do you have to measure to do that? What measurement technologies do you need to enable molecular electronics to advance into a viable industry?

"Right now we're developing nanoscale test structures to assess the properties and reliability of "moletronic" molecules, as well as theoretical models to validate the experimental work. We expect this to lead to a quantitative measurement and understanding of molecular conductance.

Recently, this group has performed structural characterization of electrically active molecules, and made capacitance-voltage measurements of alkane acid nanostructures. If you contemplate the challenge of hooking up a multimeter to the ends of a single molecule, you'll have some appreciate of the accomplishment there.

Data storage – another field about to feel the impact of nanotechnology. We have an extensive cross-laboratory effort in nanomagnetics, work with applications right now in disk-drive storage density and, in the longer-term, in magnetic random access memory and tunable spintronic microwave devices.

The dynamics of magnetization at the nanometer and subnanosecond scales are critical to data storage and memory applications. Atomic-scale processes can have a damping effect on spin excitations and limit performance. To study how these mechanisms work and their effect on potential applications, we're working on metrology for nanoprobe imaging of magnetic structures.

Using scanning probe microscopy we can do this with spatial resolution down to a single atom. Here you see calculations of 20 nanometer defects in grain boundaries affect 100 nanometer wavelength spin waves. Red and blue represent different normal magnetization modes.

Another interesting effort I'll mention in passing uses magnetoresistive sensor arrays for high sensitivity mapping magnetic fields at nanoscales. In addition to applications in data storage media research, these measurements can be used for forensic analysis of damaged or modified digital magnetic storage media by reconstructing the lost data.

The results can provide insight into the recording process and history, and may be used to verify authenticity. The measurements may also be used for failure analysis of semiconductor components, and for surveillance and biological monitoring.

This basic nanoscale metrology is at the heart of NIST's mission. We are working on standard reference materials and artifacts for calibrating existing nanoscale analytical instruments like scanned probe and electron microscopes, calibrations critical to the use of these instruments for the development and manufacture of nanodevices.

We are working on force measurements down to 10 nano-newtons and subnanometer positioning accuracy. Here you see an experimental nanoscale metrology tool based on laser interferometry. The goal is to locate the position of individual atoms and then be able to return to the same atom. Our potential customers are semiconductor manufacturing and other nanotechnology industries with near-atomic scale functional devices.

We also are working on tools that establish the speed at which nanodevices function and track the dynamic performance of measurement and fabrication tools at micro to femtosecond time scales.

While nanotechnology brings with a new generation of measurement problems, it's only fair to note that it also brings us some exciting opportunities.

NIST has a long interest in technologies that tie basic measurements to fundamental physical phenomenon. For some time now the international standard for the volt has been based on quantum level effects in the Josephson Junction, and we use the quantum Hall resistance as well as a primary measurement standard.

In nanotechnology we saw an opportunity to replace the primary capacitance standard, which is based on a mechanical device, with a standard that is based on a fundamental, intrinsic quantity.

The device you see in this atomic force micrograph is a special nanocircuit that "pumps" electrons one at a time to a capacitor. The bullet-shaped regions in the center are micrometer-sized islands of aluminum, separated by tiny tunnel junctions. The islands are Standing Room Only. At temperatures near absolute zero the capacitance of the islands is so small that only one excess electron can occupy a given island at a time.

This is the heart of the world's most accurate electron counter. The counter can place 70 million electrons on a capacitor with an uncertainty of just one electron. And you don't have to be at NIST to use it. We recently demonstrated that the standard can be run in a compact, transportable refrigerator.

We're now working on a quantum current standard along similar lines.

Another nanotech-based standard that we're working on is shown here. The figure at the bottom of the slide is a dimensional measurement standard constructed from single-crystal thin films of silicon. This would be used primarily by the semiconductor industry as a critical dimensions standards. Based on the size of the silicon atom, it will dramatically reduce the uncertainty in critical dimension standards as the industry pushes further into the nanotech regime. The vertical step height is about half a nanometer or one silicon atom, and the length scale on the order of microns also is based on counting silicon atoms.

Finally, I'd just like to mention a nanotechnology that we're working on that is on the far horizon – although maybe not as far as you think.

NIST has done pioneering work in laser cooling and trapping of atoms and ions, often in collaboration with our partners at JILA from the University of Colorado. Two of our scientists earned Nobel Prizes in Physics – 1997 and 2001 – for this work, which lays the foundation for our work today in quantum computing.

Quantum computing differs from classical binary computing in that an assembly of qubits – quantum bits – can simultaneously store a potentially large amount of information. A 3 bit register on any computer today can store only one number at a time from 0 to 7. A 3 qubit register simultaneously stores all 8 numbers.

Scaling this up to large registers permits quantum computers to do calculations that would literally take thousands of years on the world's fastest classical computers. For example, a 300 qubit register simultaneously stores approximately 1080 numbers. That is more than all the elemental particles in the Universe.

This computing power is very impressive, but qubits – created by trapping collections of ions – are notoriously fragile. Environmental perturbations can disrupt the quantum computer. About two years ago, NIST scientists demonstrated the first working logical gate using qubits, and in a paper published in Nature last week NIST scientists and collaborators at MIT and the University of Michigan outlined a method for linking large number of qubit devices together in what is the first realistic architecture for quantum computation that is scalable to large numbers of qubits.

I've spent a good deal of time on our laboratory research at NIST, but you might also be interested in the nanotech research funded under our Advanced Technology Program. The ATP, as you know, provides cost-share funding to help industry undertake difficult, high-risk R&D projects on path-breaking new technologies. The ATP has funded several projects that address gaps pointed out in NEMI roadmaps, including 17 projects in the past two years that represent roughly $88 million in public and private investment.

The ATP also is helping industry move nanotech theory into practical nanotechnologies. The ATP's portfolio of more than 30 nanotech-related projects represents about $249 million in R&D funding, about $128 million of that coming from the ATP. The program funds a wide variety of projects, including the few examples you see here.

The ATP has a competition for new projects underway right now. If you're interested, you can get volumes of information from the program's web site also shown here.

A final element of NIST's work in nanotechnology that deserves mention – particularly for this audience – is our role in international standards.

We work with standards development organizations both in the U.S. and internationally. One of our primary goals is to ensure that U.S. technologies and U.S. companies are not hampered in world markets through ill-considered or restrictive standards.

A very important element of this is the development and comparison of measurement capabilities to provide the technical basis for Mutual Recognition Arrangements between the U.S. and its trading partners to easy the entry of our nanotechnologies into foreign markets.

I've appreciated this chance to address you this evening on NIST's work in nanotechnology. If you'd like to know more, you can always contact us, but there's a special opportunity tomorrow. In connection with the National Nanotechnology Initiative, NIST is holding an open house to show off our nanotech programs.

Formal registration for this open house has closed, but if anyone here would like to attend, call Angie Rushing at that number tomorrow morning and she'll pull some strings for me.

NIST, of course, has been involved with NEMI since its inception, and we're pleased to continue that relationship. I know that several of our staff members currently hold leadership positions on NEMI committees, which provides us with invaluable channel for assessing industry's needs as part of our own planning. We appreciate that as well.

So I know you get plenty of input from NIST. I'm going to assert the Director's right to indulge in a little chutzpah, and make one additional suggestion as you consider the future.

Think small. Very small.

Thank you.

Created October 13, 2009, Updated October 24, 2016