Nanotech goes big time in Palo Alto

Local nanotechnology firms, researchers aim to change medicine, computing and more

Scientist Cheri Pereira stood in a lab at Palo Alto-based Nanosys and held up a glass beaker with a half-inch of gold-tinged liquid at the bottom.

That half-inch contained around a billion nanowires, she said.

Her work, and that of researchers like her, could be Silicon Valley's next big thing.

"Nano" is a prefix meaning one billionth. Nanotechnology is the science of working with substances around one to one hundred-billionths of a meter in size. It could help cure cancer, make better clean-energy batteries and create computers with nearly unlimited memory, researchers say.

Just how small is small? A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide. There are as many nanometers in an inch as there are inches between Palo Alto and Orange County.

That small size is key. Elements act in unexpected ways in nano-sized amounts. Gold absorbs light differently and turns red. Silicon becomes more flexible and stores energy better.

And smallness itself holds promise: Drugs could be delivered in miniscule portions potentially better for the body, and electronics could store more information.

Some predict the nano-revolution will dwarf the computer revolution in its scope.

Much of it is happening locally.

Palo Alto is home to major companies such as Nanosys, where Pereira's wires may one day replace transistors hundreds of times their size in electronics. The research labs of Silicon Valley giants such as Hewlett-Packard Company are located nearby in Stanford Research Park.

At Stanford University, more than 70 researchers are using nanotechnology, according to Kathryn Moler, director of the Center for Probing the Nanoscale, a National Science Foundation-funded research group at the school.

Even the world's first policy group on the topic, Foresight Nanotech Institute, made sure to be associated with Palo Alto from the start, back in 1989, Vice President Christine Peterson said.

"We've always had a Palo Alto P.O. Box," she said of the firm, now based in Menlo Park.

And while nanotechnology has been researched and used for at least two decades — in sunblock, for example, zinc oxide is rendered invisible rather than bright white when in nanoscale particles — researchers are getting closer to unlocking greater potential.

Health, energy and computing innovations may now be less than a decade away, they say.

The government has stepped in, creating the umbrella group National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001, whose diverse members range from the Department of Defense to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The initiative will get $1.5 billion in 2009, or triple its first-year budget.

A 2003 bill to secure $3.7 billion for research through 2008 was co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a 1967 Palo Alto High School graduate.

Even Gunn High School students recently tested out a new curriculum to introduce teens to the teeny science.

Whether all the predictions come true or not, one thing is clear — nanotechnology is not the wave of the future. It has arrived.

Changing the world — soon

In a Stanford lab a stone's throw from the art museum where visitors examined well-muscled Rodin figures, mouse bodies were also undergoing serious scrutiny. The mice's good health could help shape tools to fight cancer.

They had been injected with solutions of carbon nanotubes, structures resembling empty toilet paper rolls — except smaller than a billionth that size.

According to Stanford chemistry professor Hongjie Dai, these nanotubes could be packed with drugs, then injected into a cancer patient's body for delivery to target sites such as tumors.

Or nanotubes could sneak into tumors' leaky vascular system and lodge there. Then, by shining light that causes the tubes to heat up (but doesn't damage non-cancerous cells), doctors could kill tumor cells by cooking them, according to graduate student Sarah Sherlock.

As with many things nano, the small size is critical. Sherlock called it "stealth."

"If you put in something that's too big, the body's going to recognize it and work to remove it," according to Sherlock, a member of Dai's team.

The biomedical research led by Dai is one project of many using nanotech. What makes it stand out from others is that the fruits of research — real, live cancer treatments, not just more mice experiments — now seem only a few years away, according to Dai.

Just last year, doubters still questioned what happened to nanotubes once their cancer-fighting function was fulfilled. Would they accumulate in the body like dust bunnies under a bed, eventually causing toxic effects?

This winter, Dai and his team reported that mice injected with nanotubes and monitored over three months were healthy. They had excreted most tubes through feces and urine. Dai's team also discovered how to coat tubes with protein that helped them circulate in the blood stream just long enough to be effective and kept them from sticking together.

After human clinical trials — likely to be conducted on a large scale by a pharmaceutical company — the technology may be a mere five years from human use, Dai said on a recent afternoon in his Stanford office.

Another Stanford scientist confident his work might soon hit the mass market is Yi Cui, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

Devices to create and measure tiny quantities have improved enough to reach critical breakthrough points, Cui said recently, explaining why after years of study, his ideas can finally be realized.

He is hoping his work with silicon nanowires will reinvent the battery and cause a transportation revolution akin to reinventing the wheel.

Batteries with the nanowires can last 10 times as long as standard lithium-ion batteries, he said.

Such batteries could power electric cars — currently hampered from wider use by their need to be recharged — and potentially wean the world from fossil-fuel dependency, he said.

"You don't need to burn gasoline. You can use the battery. It has high enough energy to drive really long distances," he said.

The batteries work by unlocking the stretchiness of silicon, a quality that only emerges on the nanoscale.

In standard lithium-ion batteries, particles or layers of silicon expand during charging as they absorb lithium ions, then shrink during use as the tiny particles flow back out.

The expand-and-contract cycle degrades silicon over time until the battery finally dies.

But Cui's new battery uses a forest of tiny silicon wires to store ions, he said.

The nanowires, each with a diameter of one-thousandth the thickness of a sheet of paper, can grow to four times their normal size but don't fracture as other silicon shapes do, he said.

The technology could reach commercial markets in as little as five years, he said.

And with abundant supply and pre-existing technology, the super-batteries shouldn't cost too much.

"Silicon is really abundant, the second most abundant element. The semiconductor industry is mature. [So the cost is low," he said.

For now, he is running more tests on the batteries' abilities, working out of a lab a short stroll from Dai's.

A long way to Oz

Yet not all researchers are on the cusp of a nano-miracle.

"This is early, early days," Peterson of Foresight said.

Predictions made in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler, a man sometimes dubbed "the father of nanotechnology," have not yet come true.

Drexler's book, "Engines of Creation," hailed the coming nano-era with visions of machines only a few molecules big, making products atom by atom.

Those machines are still on the horizon. Foresight released a road map to nanotechnology in January calling for more research and funding to develop them.

"Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap," states such machines could help build artificial organ systems or remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Drexler was one of the document's technical leaders.

From the standpoint of miniature machines, one could say the evolution of nano-research as compared to early computer development is currently "at the stage where they were still trying to make computers out of vacuum tubes," Peterson said.

The analogy reveals the breadth of nanoscale research, because while mini-machines may sound like science fiction, biomedical researchers such as Dai have seen their work begin to pay off.

"For those folks, they feel like they've arrived," Peterson said.

More a tool than a field per se, nanotechnology has always been a diverse area of research, attracting everyone from computer programmers in flip-flops to chemists with starched lab coats, she said.

Participants at Foresight's first conference in 1989 had trouble simply communicating. "They could barely even speak to each other because they even used different units of measurement," she said.

It was the cacophony of voices announcing research that led her group to publish the road map — they recognized the need for a guiding harmony, she said.

Road maps, also used by the semiconductor industry, help the players of complex and quickly changing industries get a broader picture of what is happening, she said.

The current document contains contributions from chemists, physicists and others across the nation.

Could N-A-N-O spell doom?

Yet while Foresight's road map heralds the promise of molecular manufacturing, Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology warns against possible disasters.

The tiny machines could cause economic breakdown or a vicious arms race, according to Treder, executive director of the online think-tank.

The think-tank's Web site, run by Treder out of a Brooklyn home office, also describes possible benefits. People must think carefully about where advances could lead — good and bad, Treder said.

Molecular machines could cause economic changes on par with the last industrial revolution, he said. Such a machine would build new products atom by atom. It could spit out a pair of new blue jeans bit by bit the way today's computer printers push out documents, he said.

If these machines spread to households nationwide, it would seriously disrupt manufacturing and traditional commerce, he said. The little nano-factories could also reproduce themselves, leading to endless at-home production, he said. And they may be as little as a decade away from development, he said.

Molecular manufacturing could also trigger an arms race, he said.

Today's smallest weapons are expensive to build and often made out of rare materials. But nano-factories could make weapons cheaply and precisely using abundant elements such as carbon, he said.

"It would be possible to make millions of tiny devices, let's say flying weapons, that are the size of a bug or at least a bird," he said.

Treder advocates developing international regulations through a body such as the United Nations or World Trade Organization — and soon. Research is advancing quickly, he said.

Foresight's Peterson agrees with Treder's caution — but not all his conclusions.

Using mini-machines to make products at home is unlikely to cause economic disruption, she said.

"I don't worry about capitalism collapsing. ... The designs would be often times intellectual property, which might conceivably be patented," she said.

Such patents would prevent endless at-home production, or at least maintain the pay structure currently in use, she said. And at-home production could save needless transportation costs and fossil fuels, she said.

But military applications need some sort of oversight, she agreed.

Yet the current system of U.N. inspections and sanctions doesn't work, she said.

Foresight is developing an open-source model in which governments share information about what they are developing, she said. Sharing information would make it easier for countries to track what others are doing — and see who has things to hide, based on who doesn't participate, she said.

The MIT-based Institute for Soldier Technologies, supported by a $50 million grant from the United States Army, already follows such an open model, she said. Its Web site explains plans to use nanotechnology to develop light-weight uniforms and tools for soldiers, among other ideas.

Peterson, like Treder, said monitoring should start now, before weapons grow more complex.

From the test tube to aisle five

Since announcing their promising findings, scientists Cui and Dai said they've received calls from interested investors.

But Dai said his role isn't to figure out how to turn his research into a profitable product when it is finally wrapped up — he is a scientist.

Enter investors and companies. At the intersection of completed research and future products stands the marketplace, whose players often turn breakthroughs into products.

And research-driven firms such as Palo Alto-based Nanosys or Hewlett-Packard Company strive to come up with their own innovations to drive business.

They form another continent in the nano-world.

Founded in 2001, Nanosys aims to develop "broadly applicable technology" with "commercialization expertise," according to its promotional literature.

It boasts funding from the U.S. military, Department of Energy, other government entities and venture-capital firms.

Its projects sound less like dreams on the horizon and more like goods waiting to be sold.

For example, the firm is partnering with the Japanese electronics company Sharp to help develop better liquid-crystal displays, according to Pete Garcia, Nanosys' chief financial officer.

Such displays are used in flat-screen televisions. Replacing current transistors in screens with smaller nanoscale transistors would create a thinner, better-looking display, he said. The displays may one day be printed on plastic, eliminating bulky, pricey sheets of glass — and creating cheaper high-quality TVs, he said.

At HP's local research labs, not far from Nanosys in the Stanford Research Park, Phil Kuekes is at work on a nanoscale circuit he hopes to see combined with HP products one day.

Transistors have long been the building blocks of computing, but they are limited by size, according to Kuekes, a computer architect.

As current transistors get so small that they span fewer than 20 atoms in width, they start to leak electricity, he said.

Kuekes has helped design leak-proof circuits using nanowires even smaller than viruses, he said.

"For the first time we're actually building active circuitry on the smallest scale that life itself uses," he said.

The circuits could be added to current silicon transistors to boost computer memory, Kuekes said.

"Think of it as a turbo charger or an after-burner. After-burners are on jets to make them go faster," he said.

Yet Best Buy won't feature a sale on super-powerful, nano-charged computers any time soon — such products may take another eight to 10 years to develop from lab to marketplace, he said.

The company must perfect the technology, and then figure out how to incorporate it into existing products, he said.

Despite the unknowns that lie ahead, he is certain the circuits will be the next chapter in the innovative legacy of Palo Alto and surrounding cities, he said.

"We intend to take the silicon technology, which has given Silicon Valley its name, and using our nano-electronic technology, essentially give it a new lease on life," he said.

Quiet and invisible, for the most part

Coming soon to a classroom near you

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