Nanotechnology – Science vs. Engineering

The IEEE San Francisco Bay Area Nanotechnology Council hosts a series of meetings throughout the year in Silicon Valley. Most are monthly lunches, pizza and a speaker, but twice a year the Council expands the event to a half or full day.

On July 17th, I attended their day-long summer symposium in an auditorium at National Semiconductor in Sunnyvale, and I wasn’t the only one. There were at least 150 people there, along with compelling topic material and great food. Given the caliber of the speakers on the program – a Nobel Prize winner, a university chancellor, a CTO, a VP of engineering, various directors and research scientists, four VCs and a lawyer – it was impossible not to learn something over the course of the day. In my case, I learned a bundle.

First off, I learned what nanotechnology is. And, yep, if you think the definition is vague, you’re absolutely right. Even Nitin Parekh, IEEE SFBA Nanotech Council Chair, says it’s vague. But why quote the experts? After talking to Parekh and others over the course of the day, I developed my own definition at the symposium and I’ll suggest it’s as good as anybody else’s at this point in time:

Nanotechnology is about anything that’s Small (preferably below 100 nm) that can be manipulated, engineered, or utilized to do something Big.

And Big can be defined many ways – increasing device density on chip, replacing CMOS with something else, creating self-assembling systems, accessing vast amounts of renewable energy and clean water, traveling faster, communicating more, fixing what nature got wrong in the human body and elsewhere, or making gazillions of dollars in emerging markets for alternative energy, new composites, low-power ubiquitous compute platforms, smarter drugs, or cleaner transportation.

So, don’t get hung up on carbon, particles, or tubes, because nanotechnology‘s far more profound than that.

Nanotechnology is Small. The (potential) applications are Huge.

Voilà. That’s it.


Plenary Session

Arno Penzias won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978 for discovering the background noise left over from the Big Bang that makes it so hard to hear stuff out across the universe. These days, his interests are far more concrete. As a Venture Partner at NEA, he’s making money investing in “An Energy Agenda for a Sustainable Environment,” which also happened to be the subject of his talk. Here's the Penzias agenda:


  1. Lots of solar power, not just 10-megaWatt power farms, but multiple, teraWatt installations to meet the global need. Every sun-exposed dark spot on any building everywhere is a candidate because the sun’s got to be there anyway. Coat it with photovoltaic materials and use it to generate power.
  2. Every person needs access to light so they can study at night, refrigeration for food and medicine, and clean water – and that’s not water from polluting, fuel-generated purification systems. Biodiesel was a 19th century invention of Dr. Diesel who taught farmers to use local biofuels. We need to use what’s in the neighborhood, and not some fussy fuel that has to be brought long distances.
  3. Sustainable propulsion systems that are evolved way beyond just hydrogen-fueled or hybrid vehicles. We need to get past the need for a battery, so do you really want to do nanotech? Then solve this!
  4. Vibrant and impact-free human settlements that keep the environment clean for all time, which is more than just controlling over-population. People say they don’t want a genetically modified world, but we’ve had 100 centuries of ad-hoc genetic modification. So, stop resisting the improvements that genetic engineering is offering and accept that it’s always been a part of our history. Per Penzias, “Ingenuity is our only inexhaustible resource. The more knowledge we create, the more we know.”

Arno Penzias was a hard act to follow, but Steven Kang, Chancellor at U.C. Merced, was up to the task with an even more straightforward agenda. He wants to combine energy research and nanotechnology to improve the quality of life for the 8 to 10 billion folks we can expect to be inhabiting the planet by the middle of the 21st century. Seems simple enough.

Along with his colleagues at Merced, Dr. Kang has set out to make energy/nanotech the overarching emphasis on the newest campus of the University of California. Got kids? Do they have dreams? Send them to Merced. There they can work on water, solar, and wind power with a “clear trend towards miniaturization,” along side such emerging solar energy gurus as Roland Winston.

By the way, Kang’s talk was not limited to energy issues. He also detailed a boatload of technology initiatives in the life sciences, underway in California and elsewhere, including retinal prosthesis, lungs-on-chip using porous polymeric scaffolds, neuron-FET interface devices, microelectronic arrays for epilepsy control, and bioinformatics for tracing human drug interactions. And, in a nod to the EDA industry, he asked, “ How could we have designed any circuits without SPICE? Similarly, CAD tools can be extended for bioelectronics and biologics circuit for biomimetic systems development to increase quality of life.” Kang said there are huge opportunities to apply EDA technologies to human-engineered biological circuits. I cheered.

Kang knows CAD because he led the team at Bell Labs that produced the first 32-bit microprocessor, which he noted during his talk could not be perceived as an engineering success: “We didn’t know how to take it to market.” Kang is applying the lesson of that failure to his engineering agenda in nanotechnology and energy at Merced. He said, “No matter what technology we develop, if it’s not cost effective it won’t go anywhere. You’ve got have mass production of these technologies which means low cost.”

[Editor’s Note: Interestingly, both Dr. Kang and Dr. Penzias originally hailed from Bell Labs. What does that tell you about the level of innovation and quality of intellect that rattled around in those legendary halls?]


Sustainable energy and the real world

Following the plenary, the morning session was devoted to sustainable energy technologies. SRI’s Barbara Heydorn laid out a litany of opportunities for applying nanotech to energy, and detailed current use statistics for different energy modalities.

Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of our energy comes from coal, oil, and natural gas – the not-renewable triplets. However, “renewable” sources are not ready to take over. Nuclear energy’s drawbacks are well known, hydroelectric is tapped out and “dams are not admired environmentally,” geothermal provides only a small percent of the world’s demand currently, and biomass, wind, and solar are even smaller contributors. “It’s not realistic to think about replacing oil and gas right now,” Heydorn said.

So, she concluded, let’s use new materials to improve the recovery and utilization of our existing, conventional energy supply. Per Heydorn, we’ve got 40-to-200 years of oil left (depending on efficiencies), 60-to-400 years of natural gas, and 250-to-700 years of coal left. If we use nanotechnology to upgrade the exploration, refining, blending, distribution, and utilization of petroleum resources, we’ll buy the time we need to bring the renewable energy sources online.

Bill Yerkes, CTO at Solaicx, was up next. Yerkes founded Solar Technology International, which was purchased by ARCO and then became the largest photovoltaic manufacturer in the world. Combined with his early years as an engineer at Boeing, it’s not surprising that Yerkes’ talk at the symposium was a gritty, hand-on evaluation of the real-world technology and economics of solar power. He said glass substrates are better than plastic, and certain photovoltaic materials far outperform others.

Yerkes is bullish on solar – nanotech solar cells, in particular – which can survive the rigors of outdoor living, and he thinks concerns about using Cadmium Telluride (toxic when ignited) is nonsense (the required temps are too high to be of concern). He also has powerful opinions about a host of other solar materials, companies, and people involved in the industry. He ended, “Each technology [I’ve described] is going down the trail due to the good old free market economy. Everybody making solar cells is rapidly going forward, and the costs [and rewards] are being driven by the engineers!”

The morning ended with Guido Radaelli, Vice President of Engineering at Aurora Biofuels, talking about energy production from biomass using algae grown on an industrial scale – or even harvested from the North Sea. It was pretty interesting, although I suspect the neighbors prefer not to be downwind from the biofuel algae farm when it‘s a‘blooming.

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