from the February 2002 issue

Nanotechnology: Origins, Development and Israel's Growing Role

Background: What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the art of manipulating matter at the atomic scale. It crosses and unites academic fields such as physics, chemistry, biology and even computer science. Nano- the exotic prefix Derived from the Greek word for midget, "nano" means 10-9, a billionth part. A nanometer (abbreviated nm), for example, is one billionth of a meter. An atom measures about one-third of a nanometer. The diameter of a human hair-a measurement notable as nanotechnology's greatest cliché-is about 200,000 nm.

The Past Four Decades
In 1959, the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said "There's plenty of room at the bottom." In this speech, he envisioned a discipline devoted to manipulating smaller and smaller units of matter. Feynman continued, "Ultimately-in the great future-we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down!"

In 1974 the term nanotechnology itself was coined by Norio Taniguchi at the University of Tokyo. Taniguchi, perceived engineering at the micrometer scale-so-called micro-technology-from a new, sub-micrometer level, which he dubbed "nano-technology." In 1986, MIT researcher Eric Drexler wrote "Engines of Creation", the book widely credited with bringing nanotech into the public's consciousness.

At the same time, researchers at the American Rice University were studying a bizarre molecule. By vaporizing carbon and allowing it to condense in an inert gas, Richard Smalley's research team observed that the carbon formed highly stable crystals of sixty atoms apiece. They suspected the crystals shared the familiar soccer-ball structure used in architect R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, and named their discovery "buckminsterfullerene," which was quickly shortened to "fullerene," or "buckyball."

The buckyball remains nanotechnology's most famous discovery. It earned Smalley and his colleagues the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and cemented nanotechnology's reputation as a cutting-edge research field. Having explained the prefix, it wouldn't do to overlook the workaday root. Nanotechnology is not just the study of the very small -- it is also very much a technology.

Israel's Growing Infatuation with Nanotechnology
Of late, Israel's major institutes of higher learning have been busy in establishing nanotechnology research and development facilities. The level of funding varies, but the promise is that the resultant research "has the potential to change everything". In spite of the rush towards supporting basic research in scientific and academic circles, there is much discussion about what nanotechnology will make possible and when -- and if the pursuit of nanotechnology is ultimately worth the effort.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently set up a new $40 million center for nanoscience and nanotechnology. The center will be part of the Faculty of Science for research and development. In another six months, the university will inaugurate one [physical] component, the center for microcharacterization and electron microscopy.

What is being launched now is the official cross-disciplinary activity, the essence of nanoscience research. Hebrew University scientists from the physics, chemistry, engineering and life science faculties, many of whom are already working at the nanoscale, will be carrying out joint research projects and inviting guest speakers.

The Hebrew University is not alone in this endeavor: Ben-Gurion University, Tel Aviv University, and the Technion all announced major investments in nanoscience and nanotechnology over the past 18 months.

A recent nanotechnology symposium brought academics together to explain the founding principles of nanotechnology to venture capital funds.

"We believe that this is one of the hottest subjects in science: basic science which you can use in the foreseeable future for useful products [in industry]," said Professor Magidor of the Hebrew University. "The first useful products are probably a decade away, but we will be prepared," Magidor continued. "As the major research center in Israel, we should be the major player [in nanoscience],' he said. 'There is already some interest from industry. Now we are saying to them: we are here."

The View to the Future
Currently, nanotechnology labs focus on basic research, but they hope one day to apply their discoveries to nearly all branches of technology. Already, research points to revolutionary advances in materials, pharmaceuticals and information technology.

Research that built on Smalley's buckyballs led to the discovery of crystal carbon tubes, similar in structure to buckyballs, but many thousands of atoms long. That has led scientists to envision a wide range of applications-from nanoscale electronics to super materials and to tiny machines.

The first working electronic component for the nanocircuits of the future, for example, was created at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Called a nanowire, it's a string of tiny particles of silver, a thousand times thinner than a human hair, which actually passes a current.

Israeli physicist Uri Sivan fathered the nanowire, together with fellow physicist Erez Braun and chemist Yoav Eichen. The Technion team synthesized strands of DNA - the molecule that makes up genes - to make a scaffolding for the wire. Because DNA is an insulator which does not conduct electrical current, they attached grains of silver along the scaffold. The resulting nanowire is three times thinner than those created for microchips. Prof. Jacob Sagiv, a materials scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, has built three-dimensional structures out of molecules. One of these structures is shaped like a Star of David, each of its sides only 1,000th the width of a human hair.

Prof. Reshef Tenne, also from Weizmann, searched with colleagues in his department and at Oxford University in Britain for molecules to act as switches in computer memory. Unable to find this in nature, they shaped a single layer of nickel-chloride molecules into a sphere. This has not only produced highly reliable magnetic memory switches, it has also led to the creation of tiny molecular pipes.

The Weizmann Institute-developed nanotubes have been warmly welcomed by Prof. Aaron Lewis, director of the Laser Center at the Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem (as previously reported by IHTIR). Prof. Lewis and Prof. Tenne both believe the nanotubes will extend the use of the recently developed nanomicroscope, now in use from Beijing to Stanford. "In this microscope, light is passed through a hole only nanometers in dimension, allowing us to examine single genes and even single proteins, and how they attach themselves on the cell surface,'' says Prof. Lewis.

Punching glass to make a hole only 10 nanometers wide for the microscope demanded the creation of new technology. This knowledge led, in turn, to the development of tiny glass tubes into which Lewis slid an even tinier metal wire, creating an instrument that functions like a surgical laser with a wide range of different lasers depending on the electric pulses sent through it. A fraction of the cost of a variety of surgical lasers, it is now in clinical trials at Hadassah.

Another tool that evolved from the new technology is what Prof. Lewis calls a nano-fountain pen. It is, in fact, a hollow nanotube, which can deposit chemicals at nanodimensions. Its uses may include chemically altering faulty genes. Two Israeli startups are developing products and services based on the Prof Lewis' scientific work. The Jerusalem Venture Partners VC fund has announced an investment of $1m in US company NanoTectonica. This marks the first time that an Israeli fund has invested in nanotechnology. The financing round was led by the world's leading venture capital fund, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report February 2002

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