Chemistry 4966 – Advanced Integrated Laboratory

Multidisciplinary laboratory projects. Experimental design, synthetic techniques, chemical analysis, spectroscopy, and computational methods.

Ancient Nano: Manipulations in the nanoworld before 1959

Abstract: When did the science of nanotechnology begin? By some accounts, it was on December 29, 1959, as the result of the after-dinner talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, delivered by the physicist Richard Feynman to a meeting of the American Physical Society. Feynman discussed the science of miniaturization and possible techniques for taking it to the atomic level. He suggested that “manipulating and controlling things on a small scale . . . atom by atom” was not only possible, but also that it had the potential for generating numerous technological applications. The significance of Feynman’s lecture has been the subject of sharp disagreement in the more than half century since it was delivered. Did it really “launch the global nanotechnology race,” as Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute, later put it? Or was it retroactively appropriated to give a fledgling science the patina of a celebrated Nobel Laureate? Whatever the relationship of “Plenty of Room” to later developments in nanotechnology, it did not mark the start of manipulations of the world on the scale now associated with that science. Millennia before the 1959 lecture, nanoscale-sized particles or features were being introduced into a wide range of manufactured objects, and were responsible for their distinctive properties and functions. Although the earliest practitioners were not aware of the dimensions involved, artisans from ancient Egypt and Rome, up to material scientists and chemists of the mid-20th century, were synthesizing nanoscale pigments and dyes, strengthening steel with carbon nanotubes, and developing geopolymers with nanoparticulate silica. Even if somewhat anachronistic, it would not be far wrong to cite their production as examples of “ancient nanotechnology.” It is the aim of this ongoing study to survey the synthesis and properties of these materials, which are still providing inspiration for new directions in research.

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