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Nanotechnology and National Security: Small Changes, Big Impact

By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. and Andrew Gudge, The Heritage Foundation, September 21, 2007

Nanotechnology is an emerging transformational technology that promises wide and dual-use applications in many fields, particularly national security. The United States is the world’s acknowledged leader in nanoscience, but stiff international competition is narrowing America’s lead. Many other countries, specifically European nations and China, have large, established nanotechnology initiatives. Most commercial applications of nanotechnology are still nascent.

In the near term, the most promising developments for national security will likely come from government research rather than from the application of commercial off-the-shelf nanotechnologies. To meet national security needs in the near term, the U.S. government needs to adopt new legislative and policy innovations, including promoting long-term research, distributing federal grants more widely, and promoting scientific travel and exchanges to maintain a supply of skilled experts. Over the long term, the government should remove capital and regulatory barriers to lower the cost of research and emerging technologies and should address safety and environmental issues.

What Is Nanotechnology?

“Nanotechnology” is derived from “nano,” the Greek word for dwarf. It involves manipulating and manufacturing particles at the microscopic and even atomic levels, between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers. By comparison, a human hair is roughly 100,000 nanometers wide.

Combining the ability to manipulate molecular structures with advances in genomics and other biological sciences has created a wealth of new research opportunities. By putting these unique properties to work, scientists are developing highly beneficial dual-use products in medicine, electronics, and many other industries that will also provide enormous defense and homeland security capabilities.

These scientific developments are creating new industries. The market opportunities are so substantial that many government and business leaders describe nanotechnology as “the next industrial revolution.”

Nanotechnology was incorporated into manufactured goods worth more than $30 billion in 2005, and this figure is projected to reach $2.6 trillion by 2015. However, since nanotechnology is relatively new, government research is critical for developing applications of this new technology, particularly in the field of national security.

A Small Beginning

The birth of nanotechnology can be traced to 1981, when Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer, scientists at IBM Research, Zurich, created the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The STM was the first instrument capable of performing operations at the atomic scale, such as adding or removing individual electrons to or from atoms and molecules. It gave researchers the unprecedented ability to change materials “from the bottom up.” The two scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for their invention in 1986.

Within a few years, scientists had demonstrated the capability to manufacture nanoparticles. The discovery of fullerines (isomers or molecules of pure carbon that can be manipulated into unique structures, such as “buckyballs”) in 1985 and carbon nanotubes (manufactured one-atom-thick sheets of carbon rolled into cylinders) in 1991 sparked further interest in nanotechnology.

These molecules have novel properties that make them potentially useful in a wide variety of applications, including electronics, optics, and other fields of material science. They also exhibit extraordinary strength and unique electrical properties. Carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel at one-sixth the weight, while buckyballs are hollow, making them well-suited for use as carriers of drugs or other materials.

Nanotechnology Today

Current commercial nanotechnological products are limited to first-generation passive applications, such as nanoparticles, coatings, catalysts, and nanocomposites (materials formed from organic and inorganic components at the nanoscale). Products include cosmetics, automobile parts, clothing, and sports equipment. Research is quickly leading nanotechnology to converge with other fields, including biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.

Using techniques commonly found in semiconductor manufacture, researchers have created adjustable “quantum dots” by making “wells” and “corrals” on silicon chips where individual electrons can be trapped and held. The shell of electrons around every atom determines its properties, such as color and electrical conductivity. By filling these quantum corrals with differing numbers of electrons, researchers can create artificial “atoms” that have the same properties as any element onÑ or beyondÑthe periodic table, although these “atoms” are temporary and lack nuclei.

Simply adding or subtracting electrons from these wells changes the type of “atom.” Grids of quantum corrals built across the surface of a silicon semiconductor chip would allow the creation of artificial molecules, which would theoretically allow the entire chip to haveÑat least on its surfaceÑthe physical properties of almost any material imaginable.

Some aspects of current nanotechnology also blur the line with biotechnology. For example, nanoparticles (clusters of tens to hundreds of individual atoms) have been used in medical research to fight diseases, including cancer. Researchers are also exploring ways to manipulate the genetic code that have tremendous implications in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. A nanoparticle that encapsulates medication with biomolecules could be designed to bind only to the cells that need the medicine. Such research could also affect other disease research and possibly change the medical response to national catastrophic disaster.

Nanophotonics is another growing field of nanotechnology research. Photonics, which uses light, is the ability to control photons for the purpose of carrying, processing, storing, or displaying information. Well-known applications of photonics include fiberoptic cable, television screens, computer displays, and laser and imaging systems.

In nanophotonics, scientists control the morphology of materials and, as a result, can now change how a material refracts light. Thus, nanophotonics is not simply the scaling-down of existing systems, but utilizing physics, functionalities, and design strategies that are different from regular photonics to produce tiny waveguides, microscopes on a single chip, better optical communications equipment, and chemical and biological sensors.

National Security Implications

In 2000, the federal government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to promote nanotechnology research at the federal level. The NNI is managed by the Nanoscale Science Engineering and Technology Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council, an interagency organization of 26 federal agencies that coordinates planning, budgeting, and program implementation among defense and national security stakeholders. This structure is vital to disseminating information and fostering cross-disciplinary networks and partnerships. Both the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are NNI members.

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