Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver
Biology, and Nanotechnology
question of whether a computer can think
is no more interesting than the question
of whether a submarine can swim.” -- Edsger
dog can herd sheep, smell land mines, pull
a sled, guide a blind person, and even warn
of oncoming epileptic seizures.
computer can calculate a spreadsheet, typeset
a document, play a video, display web pages,
and even predict the weather.
question of which one is “better” is silly.
They're both incredibly useful, and both
can be adapted to amazingly diverse tasks.
The dog is more adaptable for tasks in the
physical world--and does not require engineering
to learn a new task, only a bit of training.
But the closest a dog will ever come to
displaying web pages is fetching the newspaper.
takes a direct approach to solving tasks
that can be described with precision. If
the engineering is sound, the designs will
work as expected.
Engineered designs can then form the building
blocks of bigger systems. Precisely mixed
alloys make uniform girders that can be
built into reliable bridges. Computer chips
are so predictable that a million different
computers running the same computer program
can reliably get the same result. For simple
problems, engineering is the way to go.
has never taken a direct approach, because
it has never had a goal. Organisms are not
designed for their environment; they are
simply the best tiny fraction of uncountable
attempts to survive and replicate.
Over billions of years and a vast spectrum
of environments and organisms, the process
of trial and error has accumulated an awesome
array of solutions to an astonishing diversity
recently, biology has been the only agent
that was capable of making complicated structures
at the nanoscale. Not only complicated structures,
but self-reproducing structures: tiny cells
that can use simple chemicals to make more
cells, and large organisms made of trillions
of cells that can move, manipulate their
environment, and even think. (The human
brain has been called the most complex object
in the known universe.) It is tempting to
think that biology is magic.
Indeed, until the mid-1800's, it was thought
that organic chemicals could not be synthesized
from inorganic ones except within the body
of a living organism.
belief that there is something magical or
mystical about life is called “vitalism,”
and its echoes are still with us today.
We now know that any organic chemical can
be made from inorganic molecules or atoms.
But just last year, I heard a speaker—at
a futurist conference, no less—advance the
theory that DNA and protein are the only
molecules that can support self-replication.
Likewise, many people seem to believe that
the functionality of life, the way it solves
problems, is somehow inherently better than
engineering: that life can do things inaccessible
to engineering, and the best we can do is
to copy its techniques. Any engineering
design that does not use all the techniques
of biology is considered to be somehow lacking.
we see people scraping and painting a bridge
to avoid rust, we may think how much better
biology is than engineering: the things
we build require maintenance, while biology
can repair itself. Then, when we see a remora
cleaning parasites off a shark, we think
again that biology is better than engineering:
we build isolated special-purpose machines,
while biology develops webs of mutual support.
But in fact, the remora is performing the
same function as the bridge painters. If
we want to think that biology is better,
it's easy to find evidence. But a closer
look shows that in many cases, biology and
engineering already use the same techniques.
does use some techniques that engineering
generally does not.
Because biology develops by trial and error,
it can develop complicated and finely-tuned
interactions between its components. A muscle
contracts when it's signaled by nerves.
It also plays a role in maintaining the
proper balance of nutrients in the blood.
It generates heat, which the body can use
to maintain its temperature. And the contraction
of muscles helps to pump the lymph. A muscle
can do all this because it is made of incredibly
intricate cells, and embedded in a tightly-integrated
body. Engineered devices tend to be simpler,
with one component performing only one function.
But there are exceptions.
The engine of your car also warms the heater.
And the electricity that it generates to
run its spark plugs and fuel pump also powers
deserves a special mention. Many non-engineered
systems are complex, while few engineered
systems are. A complex system is one where
slightly different inputs can produce radically
Engineers like things simple and predictable,
so it's no surprise that engineers try to
avoid complexity. Does this mean that biology
is better? No, biology usually avoids complexity
too. Even complex systems are predictable
some of the time—otherwise, they'd be random.
Biology is full of feedback loops with the
sole function of keeping complex systems
from running off the rails. And it's not
as though engineered devices are incapable
of using complexity. Turbulence is complex.
And turbulence is a great way to mix substances
Your car's engine is finely sculpted to
create turbulence to mix the fuel and the
flirts with complexity in a way that engineering
Protein folding, in which a linear chain
of peptides folds into a 3D protein shape,
is complex. If you change a single peptide
in the protein, it will often fold to a
very similar shape—but sometimes will make
a completely different one. This is very
useful in evolving systems, because it allows
a single system to produce both small and
large changes. But we like our products
to be predictable: we would not want one
in a thousand cars sold to have five wheels,
just so we could test if five was better
than four. Evolution is beginning to be
used in design, but it will probably never
be used in the manufacture of final products.
the techniques of life is called “biomimesis.”
There's nothing wrong with it, in moderation.
Airplanes and birds both have wings. But
airplane wings do not have feathers, and
airplanes do not digest seeds in mid-air
for fuel. Biology has developed some techniques
that we would do well to copy. But human
engineers have also developed some techniques
that biology never invented. And many of
biology's techniques are inefficient or
simply unnecessary in many situations.
Sharks might not need remoras if they shed
their skin periodically, as some trees and
design of nanomachines and nanosystems has
been a focus of controversy. Many scientists
think that nanomachines should try to duplicate
biology: that the techniques of biology
are the best, or even the only, techniques
that can work at the nanometer scale. Certainly,
the size of a device will have an effect
on its function. But the device's materials
also have an effect. The materials of biology
are quite specialized. Just a few chemicals,
arranged in different patterns, are enough
to make an entire organism. But organic
chemicals are not the only kind of chemicals
that can make nanoscale structures.
Organics are not very stiff; they vibrate
and even change shape. They float in water,
and the vibrations move chemicals through
the water from one reaction site to another.
few researchers have proposed building systems
out of a different kind of chemistry and
machinery. Built of much stiffer materials,
and operating in vacuum or inert gas rather
than water, it would be able to manufacture
substances that biology cannot, such as
diamond. This has been widely criticized:
how could stiff molecular machines work
while fighting the vibrations that drive
biological chemicals from place to place?
But in fact, even in a cell, chemicals are
often actively transported by molecular
motors rather than being allowed to diffuse
randomly. And even the stiff machine designs
use vibration when it is helpful; for example,
a machine designed to bind and move molecules
might jam if it grabbed the wrong molecule,
and Drexler has calculated that thermal
noise could be effective at un-jamming it.
(See Nanosystems section 13.2.1.d.)
and biology alike are very good at ignoring
effects that are irrelevant to their function.
Engineers often find it easier to build
systems a little bit more robustly, so that
no action is necessary to keep them working
as designed in a variety of conditions.
Biology, being more complicated and delicate,
often has to actively compensate or resist
things that would disrupt its systems. So
for the most part, stiff machines would
not “fight” vibrations—they'd simply ignore
still has a few tricks we have not learned.
Embryology, immunology, and the regulation
of gene expression are still largely mysterious
to us. We have not yet built a system with
as much complexity as an insect, so we cannot
know whether there are techniques we haven't
even noticed yet that help the insect deal
with its environment effectively. But even
with the tricks we already know, we can
build machines far more powerful—for limited
applications—than biology could hope to
match. (How many horses would fit under
the hood of a 300-horsepower sports car?)
These tricks and techniques, with suitable
choices and modifications, will work fine
even at the molecular scale. Engineering
and biology techniques overlap substantially,
and engineering already has enough techniques
to build complete machine systems—even self-contained
manufacturing systems—out of molecules.
This may be threatening to some people,
who would rather see biology retain its
mystery and preeminence. But at the molecular
level, biology is just machines and structures.
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM)
(CRN) is an affiliate of World Care(R),
an international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization.
All donations to CRN are handled through
World Care. The opinions expressed by CRN
do not necessarily reflect those of World
has studied nanotechnology and molecular
manufacturing for more than a decade. After
successful careers in software engineering
and dyslexia correction, Chris co-founded
the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
in 2002, where he is Director of Research.
Chris holds an MS in Computer Science from
© 2004 Chris Phoenix
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM)
(CRN) is an affiliate of World Care(R), an
international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization.
All donations to CRN are handled through World
Care. The opinions expressed by CRN do not
necessarily reflect those of World Care
Services and Infrastructure
for Nano- and Microproduction
& Henne van Heeren (NL)
readers know that a large number of applications and markets
could be served by products based on the various micro nano
technologies (MNT). However, the variety of MNT manufacturing
technologies also poses a threat to the commercial breakthrough
of MNT. With so many technologies available, most of them not
yet standardised, and non-availability of standard equipment
for several of them, how can MNT become commercially successful?
certain high-volume markets, such as automotive, computer
peripherals, and communications, the advantages of MNT were
able to overcome the problems that follow technological diversification.
The authors believe that only a good infrastructure of design
houses, foundries, package/assembly providers and equipment
suppliers is able to satisfy the demand in design, prototyping,
and (mass-) production in all the MNT fields. This infrastructure
is needed to provide an efficient route to commercialisation.
Services and infrastructure needed for the commercialisation
and Design Houses play a major role in the supply chain. Foundries,
provide the infrastructure to prototype, fabricate and mass-produce
the designs emanating from the design houses and other companies.
The reason for the customers to rely on foundries can be diverse:
ranging from pure financial reasons (investment, cost-price)
to technical (availability of required technology). The desire
to have a second source of supply can also be a reason for outsourcing.
A ‘fabless’ design house can generally be described as the catalyst
that enables ideas or concepts to migrate towards commercialisation.
In this context, the fabless design organisation manages the
process of technology transfer from R&D to a production
suppliers are another, often not very visible, part of the
infrastructure. Although the diversity in packaging and assembly
for MST/MEMS is notably high, they can be classified into
the following four generic groups:
• Standard available packaging and assembly technologies.
Techniques, which can only be used in a limited number of
cases, often hindered by the (mechanical) sensitivity of
the product, the small dimensions or the special demands
in the field of interconnections with the outer world.
• Specialised assembly, often with special technologies
ensuring ultra precise positioning and/or very careful handling.
• Adapted standard packaging, where use is made of the cost
effective and high quality processing capabilities established
for the high-volume electronics industry. The main trend
here is to use a die protecting method during plastic moulding.
Closure for sealing the package is achieved afterwards.
The lid can be used to accommodate feed troughs for optical
or fluidics access.
• Waferscale package. This method promises a, potentially,
low cost solution which circumvents problems associated
with handling sensitive products in an assembly line, by
providing protection at an early stage of the processing.
the professional infrastructure are the equipment and material
suppliers. The emerging markets for MST/MEMS (Micro Systems
Technologies / Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) products
have created a demand for specialised equipment. The first
to fulfil that demand were suppliers of dedicated MST/MEMS
tools including Deep Reactive Ion Etchers (DRIE), waferbonders
and backside aligners. Those companies (STS, Aldixen, AML,
EV Group and Suss Microtec) are still in the forefront of
this market. Spin-offs from universities were started to fulfil
(niche) demands, whilst established companies entered this
arena at a later stage, offering adapted processing tools
developed for other industries, such as, those specialising
in thin film processing. More interestingly, even the (large)
semiconductor equipment manufacturers have begun to show an
interest. Within this context, there is now available a mixture
of general equipment facilities, designed and developed for
other applications such as semiconductors and also equipment
adapted or specially tailored for Micro-Nano Technologies
(MNT) production. It is noticeable that, although Europe (particularly
Germany) is relatively strong in the area of MNT Back End
equipment, the presence of European manufacturers is less
impressive in Front End equipment production and almost non-existent
in the area of nanotechnology.
Suppliers of MNT production equipment
nanotechnologies are taken into account to
be used with microproduction, the manufacturing technologies
become even more diverse. To investigate the market and distinguish
trends, the authors categorised the production processes for
nanotechnology-based products into four areas (Fig. 3):
down nanotechnology: Top down nanotechnology is mainly based
on processes and equipment for high-end lithography and
similar equipment. Technologies and equipment are aiming
at producing large quantities of products, mostly on flat
• Bottom up technologies: Bottom up technology involves
the building up of nanotechnology products from atom level,
by either mechanical manipulation (using Scanning Probe
Microscopes) or with molecules assembling other molecules
(Molecular Self Assembly).
• Nanoparticle production: In nanoparticle production extended
traditional physical and chemical methods are utilised to
create particles with smaller sizes and special properties.
• Nanotube production processes. Nanotubes are seen as a
very promising material due to its unique properties.
should be noted that the top down and bottom up approach (except
Molecular Self Assembly) are mostly equipment oriented. Molecular
Self Assembly, nanoparticle and nanotube production are much
more process oriented. Top-down and bottom-up nanotechnology
equipment benefit from the equipment infrastructure for semiconductor
lithography and deposition and the ample availability of Scanning
Probe Microscopes. Most of the development of processes for
the production of nanoparticles is done in-house. The equipment
market for nanoparticle production is not well developed,
although it benefits from knowledge from the chemical/physical
process equipment market.
of MNT based products is growing in a number of application
and markets, ranging from life science to telecommunications.
Besides a few notable exceptions, the MNT market is still
a sum of niche markets. There is a general consensus that
the overall market will grow, but that commercialisation will
take longer than was anticipated a few years ago.
still remains a bottleneck introduced, belatedly, at the end
of the design cycle, and often delaying or even preventing
industrialisation and commercialisation. It is well known
that selecting the appropriate packaging method may be the
decisive factor that determines a product’s success or its
premature failure. Choosing the right technology, therefore,
is not a marginal concern, but pivotal to the product design.
The existence of professional suppliers of packaging and assembly
is an essential element in the supply chain and critical for
the manufacturing and commercialisation of MNT-based products.
In addition, the incorporation of packaging and assembly techniques
at the front-end of the engineering cycle will pay back in
terms of financial savings and shorter timescales to market.
Methodologies for a ‘design for micro nano manufacturing’
approach are under development.
working in the field of nanotechnology aim at the extension
of semiconductor equipment to suit the market needs (the so-called
“top down” approach). Also several companies are offering
equipment based on chemical and physical processes for the
production of small particles and nanotubes. The “bottom up”
approach, aiming to build nanotechnology products practically
atom by atom, is less prevalent. There is an ample supply
of Scanning Probe Microscopy based tools, but such instruments
are not yet able to combine nanotechnology precision with
industrial volume demand. Processes for molecular self-assembly,
which are potentially more suitable for economical mass production,
are still in development and far from industrialisation.
as a whole could benefit from exchange of information and
consensus over process and product specifications and related
equipment specifications. It is however unlikely that industry
wide roadmaps will play a role similar to the one played for
the semiconductor industry. This is due to the fact that there
is no MNT equivalent to the transistor and it is not to be
expected there will be one. It is more likely, however, that
application roadmaps will extend their influence into the
MNT arena. In essence, the customers and the end users will
determinate the roadmap and not the (equipment) suppliers.
This will undoubtedly lead to a more diverse set of processes,
equipment and standards in MNT as compared to semiconductors.
A situation that is likely to create a much wider range of
opportunities for smaller (equipment and material) suppliers,
as long as they are able to combine flexibility with quality
and staying power. However this lack of commonly shared technology
platforms is a serious threat to the realisation of reliable
and low cost products.
to the availability of a services infrastructure, the availability
of a wide ranging, industry-based intelligence information
is of vital importance in order to optimally select from this
array of enabling capabilities. This array of information
is provided through the enablingMNT Industry Review series:
Design and Engineering Companies, Foundries, Packaging and
Assembly Suppliers, Equipment Suppliers (MEMS Front-End, Back-End,
Nanofabrication), MNT Web Directories / On-line Communication
Channels, and Materials for MST/MEMS Production. Reports on
Test and Measurement Services & Equipment and Design Tools
are underway. All reviews cover worldwide activities and sell
at € 280 each.
research and consulting services offered by enablingMNT range
from market research, business development support and partner
search for industrial customers to benchmarking and exploitation
strategy development for public bodies.
Patric Salomon, Germany
Henne van Heeren, The Netherlands
© 2004 Patric Salomon
Director of Research
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