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National Science Foundation - Celebrating 50 Years

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Large Benefits from a Small World

Fifty Years of Supporting Science

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. NSF's mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

In a series of six articles, we are highlighting key scientific advances enabled by NSF support that have had a beneficial impact on humankind. This second article focuses on the agency's role in stimulating new understanding of how the world works at the atomic and molecular level and applying that understanding to create products that will change our lives.

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Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength.

Hippocampal neurons; caption is below.
Hippocampal neurons cultured on a silicon pillar
structure are the basis for proposed "neuron repair
kits" (brain cell transplants) for those afflicted with
Parkinson's or Alzheimer's disease.

Nanobiotechnology Center/Corell University

They don't exist yet. But scientists believe that they can create them in the not too distant future, as a result of basic research on nanotechnology, the manipulation of materials at the atomic and molecular level. Many observers believe that nanotechnology will benefit humankind in the 21st century in numerous areas, each with an impact as much as antibiotics or plastics did in the 20th century. The NSF supports much of the fundamental research that is laying the foundations for those beneficial applications.

In scientific terminology, the prefix "nano" means one billionth. Nanotechnology involves events that occur in the length range of a fraction of a nanometer to several hundred nanometers -- in other words, over distances between one billionth and a few hundred billionths of a meter. That is the scale of distance in which atoms and molecules exist and interact; it is for atoms and molecules what the 100-yard gridiron is for football players. Within the nanometer scale, nature creates molecules as simple as water, with two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, and as complex as DNA, the carrier of genetic information, with millions of individual atoms.

Some relatively mundane nanoscale materials and devices have already reached the market. Electronic equipment based on nanotechnology reads computer data stored on hard discs, ensures that lasers emit beams at finely tuned wavelengths, chemicals combine in the right proportion and helps to guarantee that cellular phones, pagers, and sensors in automobile engines work correctly.

However, researchers who work on nanotechnology have far more ambitious goals. They want to mimic nature, by designing and building their own nanostructures from scratch, atom by atom and molecule by molecule. They aim to tailor new entities with customized features, such as electrical conductivity, mechanical strength, and optical properties, by combining molecules of appropriate shapes and sizes into the right patterns.

Research teams have already developed some of the tools that will permit engineers to design nanostructures. IBM scientists set the stage in 1981, when they invented an instrument called the scanning tunneling microscope. This contains a stylus with a tip so fine that it can move individual atoms on a surface -- to spell out simple words, for example. A group at the University of North Carolina, funded by NSF, is now developing a sophisticated joystick that controls a scanning tunneling microscope. Scientists can use that device to start assembling nanostructures that consist of complex molecules.

An NSF-supported team at Rice University, meanwhile, is working with nanotubes. These thin cylinders of carbon atoms, with diameters of about one nanometer, have one-sixth of the density of steel but about ten times as much strength. Eventually, the team predicts, collections of nanotubes could reinforce composite materials or coat the surfaces of cars and airplanes, greatly increasing the surfaces' strength and durability.

Other groups, including one at the University of Strasbourg in France, are developing techniques called molecular self-assembly. The concept is to design molecular building blocks that automatically snap together, just like the components of modular classrooms in schools. Taking the process a stage further, an NSF-backed team at New York University has developed a nanorobotic device with two arms made of DNA that can rotate between fixed positions. That represents the first step toward nanorobots that would put together molecules in "nanomachines."

Those projects represent just a sample of the nano-research that NSF supports. At present, the agency is backing about 700 projects and 12 large centers, undertaken by roughly 2,800 faculty members and their students. The NSF also plays a lead role in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, in partnership with six other agencies. Announced in January, this is a U.S. government effort to strengthen scientific disciplines critical for the development of nanotechnology, and to encourage the relevant interdisciplinary research and education.

As part of the initiative, NSF will increase its investment in six basic segments of nanotechnology research ( They are:

  • Nanoscale biosystems, a sector that deals with the relationship among chemical composition, shape, and function of nanobiostructures.
  • Nanoscale structures, novel phenomena and quantum control, which explores what is different at nanoscale and studies how to overcome current limits to miniaturization.
  • Nanoscale devices and system architecture, an area that aims to develop ways to integrate nanoscale devices into systems and architectures for various operational environments.
  • Nanoscale processes in the environment, which seeks new approaches to trapping and releasing nutrients and contaminants of relevance from the Earth's core to the upper atmosphere and beyond.
  • Multi-scale, multi-phenomena modeling and simulation at the nano-scale, a discipline necessary to understand, control, and accelerate the development of new nanoscale processes.
  • Societal and educational implications of scientific and technological advances at the nanoscale level.

Most of the investments won't produce immediate results. Nanotechnology is in an exploratory stage, and will remain there for at least a few years. But discoveries that will emerge from the National Nanotechnology Initiative should eventually lead to applications with multimillion dollar potential in fields as diverse as microelectronics, healthcare, biotechnology, materials, and environmental protection. The ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules might even lead to entirely new industries, whose nature scientists of today can't even predict.

Environment Nanotechnology Astronomy Info.Tech. Education Biocomplexity
mountainsquantum dotobservatoryglobe-mouse montage2 studentsbirds over water
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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03