What Should We Call the (Nano)technology in Your Stain-resistant Pants?

The ongoing wrestling match for ownership of the term nanotechnology

2 min read

My first blog entry for Spectrum two-and-a-half years ago was on the struggle not only between wet and dry approaches to molecular nanotechnology (MNT) but also the competition for ownership of the term “nanotechnology” that seems to persist between the adherents to MNT, as exemplified by the Foresight Institute, and those who use the term to acknowledge developments in manipulating and exploiting structures that have at least one dimension smaller than 100nm, as represented by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

I am reminded from time to time of this debate from my own seemingly unrelated blog entries. Such as here when I asked what our best approach might be for getting to a point with nanotechnology where photovoltaics might actually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

I will not argue here (or likely anywhere else) about the feasibility of nanofactories in the visions of the MNT community. However, I will contend here that I do think they might be doing themselves a disservice by insisting that the nanotech of the NNI variety that is practiced and commercially applied today is not really nanotechnology.

My main objection to the MNT community trying to disassociate itself from nanopants and nano tennis racquets of today is that it seems unable to recognize fully that using microscopy tools for analyzing and manipulating materials to bring on new effects is certainly in the evolutionary path of the nanotechnology that they envision of atomically precise manufacturing.

I again saw this distinction being made by Ralph Merkle in the video below. It is odd because the example he gives of experimental work in MNT's development involves moving atoms across a surface with atomic resolution dynamic force microscopy (DFM).

It seems a little odd that Merkle trys to deepen the distinction between the nanotechnology he pursues and that of nanopants by using an example of experiments in nanoscale material manipulation with microscopy tools.

But what seems even stranger to me is his drawing an equivalency between the use by Boeing of CAD to model airplanes to that of modeling of nanofactories. Just a heads up, we have lots of evidence and over a century of examples of how planes fly. Not quite the same as modeling something that has never existed. 


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