Sandia LabNews

Sandia joins charge into 21st century's nanotech revolution

President Clinton sounds the bugle in Jan. 21 speech at Caltech

Sandia and several other DOE national labs will venture further into the truly tiny realm of atomic and molecular maneuvering following an announcement of a "National Nanotechnology Initiative" by President Clinton last Friday.

The initiative, announced Jan. 21 in a speech from the California Institute of Technology, would increase federal funding for nanoscience and nanotechnology R&D by 84 percent to $497 million beginning in fiscal year 2001. It would increase DOE’s nanotechnology funding from $58 million to $96 million in fiscal year 2001 (a 66-percent increase over FY2000 levels).

Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation or self-assembly of individual atoms, molecules, or molecular clusters into structures with dimensions in the 1- to 100-nanometer range to create materials and devices with new or vastly different properties. For comparison, a human hair is about 10,000 nanometers thick.

Many in the scientific community believe the ability to move and combine individual atoms and molecules could revolutionize the production of virtually every human-made object and usher in a new technology revolution at least as significant as the silicon revolution of the 20th century.

"Imagine the possibilities: materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a small fraction of the weight," Clinton said. ". . . shrinking all the information housed at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube . . . detecting cancerous tumors when they are only a few cells in size. Some of our research goals may take 20 or more years to achieve, but that is precisely why there is an important role for the federal government."

"The possibilities to design materials and devices with extraordinary properties through nanotechnology are limited only by one’s imagination," says Tom Picraux, Director of Physical and Chemical Sciences Center 1100.

Building solar cells containing nanolayers or nanorods could significantly increase the amount of electricity converted from sunlight, for example. Computer memory devices that take advantage of the "spin" of electrons could hold thousands of times more data than today’s memory chips. Molecular devices that mimic processes within living cells could help doctors find or treat diseases. Nanoclustered catalysts could help destroy environmental pollutants using the energy from sunlight.

Sandia already at the forefront

Sandia already has used ion-implantation techniques to create lightweight aluminum composite surfaces that are as strong and durable as the best steel available. Nanostructured semiconductor materials created at Sandia may enable highly efficient, low-power lasers for high-speed optical communications. Biosensors that use molecular bundles similar to those found in living cells are being created that could warn people when traces of a chemical or biological warfare agent are detected.

Other Sandia work in protonic computer memory devices, photonic lattices, super-hard coatings, nanospheres, self-assembling materials, quantum dots, and the quantum transistor all are made possible in part by nanosciences, Tom says.

Sandia also has pioneered the development of unique microscopes and other diagnostic tools that allow scientists to observe how atoms and molecules behave. The Labs’ high-performance computing capabilities may play a role in modeling the behavior of nanostructures and designing new nanostructured materials, as well.

"The promise of nanotechnology can only be realized if we learn to understand the special rules that apply to the nanoscale and develop the skills needed to integrate these new concepts into practical devices," says Tom. "Sandia’s unique ability to integrate science and technology across multidisciplinary teams will provide an essential element of this national nanotechnology program."

DOE already is the nation’s number-one funding agency in the physical and materials sciences, he adds. "Nanosciences and nanotechnology R&D are expected to produce new insights, materials, and tools that will bring many, many direct and spin-off benefits to DOE’s nuclear weapons stewardship, environmental remediation, efficient energy generation, and national security work," he says.

Other agencies that will play a role in the nanotechnology initiative include the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Last modified: January 26, 2000