The term 'nanotechnology' has been hijacked by physics. Discuss.

It depends on how you define nanotechnology. Some key aspects, such as how electrons move in a nanostructure, require a deep understanding of quantum mechanics and therefore nanotechnology sits nicely in physics. However, physicists constantly need high quality nanomaterials to examine such phenomena, and this is where chemists play a key role - some of the most complex, interesting structures are grown by wet chemical methods. Without this branch of materials chemistry, some aspect of nanotechnology would remain purely theoretical. It’s never that simple though - nanotechnology is truly interdisciplinary.

Mark Green, department of physics, Kings College, UK

A  No. Rightly or wrongly, nanotechnology is the buzzword of our time resonating across the conventional boundary of several subject areas; even the general public gets an unfair dosage. Unlike physicists or engineers, chemists feel very much at home with nanotechnology since they are armed with a full range of arsenal in the toolkit coupled to the proper theoretical mindset to tackling objects orders of magnitude smaller. In the long run, chemistry sets to gain most from the nanotech-rush. Yet chemists should focus on fundamental issues and avoid wasting time on those marginal aspects merely in order to be seen as climbing on the bandwagon.

Li Jiang, Schlumberger Doll-Research, US

A  To my understanding, the term ’nanotechnology’ was originally created by Eric Drexler, a physicist or engineer, in his famous machine ’nanoassembler’. The general definitions that people use today are quite different from the original concept. In a sense, it is much broader now. As chemists, we have always been working on assembling molecules from atoms and smaller molecules, e.g. using the so-called bottom up approach. This is fundamentally different from the top down practice in typical microfabrication processes. However, we never labelled it as nanotechnology, a more engineering favoured term. In the past ten years or so, the developments of many different fields including chemistry, physics, materials, biology and engineering all reach towards the phenomena at the scale of 1 to 100 nm. Thanks to the advancement of characterisation instruments, there are many opportunities for them to merge, generating new methods and better understandings. Nanotechnology is the common platform that links different disciplines. It is the truly multidisciplinary nature that makes nanotechnology really powerful.

Jun Li, Center for Nanotechnology, NASA Research Center, US

A  Whether you consider nanotechnology to have been hijacked by physics or indeed any other discipline depends on one’s definition of nanotechnology. Perhaps the most cogent definition (and one that avoids hype) is that propounded in the report ’Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties’by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, 2004. Essentially nanotechnology is defined as controlling shape and size at the nanoscale in order to build something such as a device. With this definition, it is clear that when science is performed at the nanoscale the traditional disciplines merge. Consequently, nanotechnology can therefore be looked on as being an umbrella term describing a mature view of conducting science at the molecular level.

William S. Price, professor of nanotechnology, University of Western Sydney, Australia

A  I hesitate to agree with this statement. While nanotechnology still has to prove its value, I think that all sciences are equally involved in this worldwide endeavour. Nanotechnology as a concept is only possible as a real interdisciplinary effort and judging from the experience in my laboratory, where I work together with researchers from all fields, it really is. Nanotechnology is performed on a molecular level where the classic borders between chemistry, physics, biology or even medicine dissolve. The human body, although not created artificially, is to my opinion the most beautiful example of working nanotechnology. I am not sure whether the medical community would allow this to be hijacked by the physicists.

Alex Ribbe, department of chemistry, Purdue University, US

A  Physicists recently distinguished themselves in nanotechnology, being the architects of a number of new functional devices working at the nanoscale. However, the nanoworld revolution is dominated by quantum physics as well as self-assembly, new nanosized functional materials and macromolecules with chemistry and biology deeply involved in designing, providing or inspiring new materials and strategies to perform complex and multifunctional tasks with applications ranging from molecular electronics to molecular motors, catalysis and life science. According to the 2001 ISI survey, applied physics and material science/engineering are the leader fields (ranked by total citations) in nanotechnology research, followed by chemistry and multidisciplinary research. However, the top cited author is Professor E Smalley, the 1996 chemistry Nobel prize winner. On the other hand, recent trends suggest that biology will become a leading contributor in the coming years. As a consequence, nanotechnology and nanoscience are expected to remain highly multidisciplinary fields with physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers playing face to face in a collective effort, like electrons in a quantum corral, atoms in a nanoparticle or macromolecules in a complex organism/chip. All voices in the same, multifaceted concert.

Giuseppe Maruccio, National Nanotechnology Laboratory of CNR-INFM, Italy

A  The field of nanotechnology represents an exciting and rapidly expanding research area. Nanotechnology plays an important role in the progress of physics in near years, and also extends the research areas of physics. In the 20th century, physics has achieved some great progresses both in macro and micro areas. Meantime, people have found a mass of novel physical phenomena, new structures, and fancy properties in nanometer scale, which will provide a brand-new space in understanding the nature for physics undoubtedly. Some potential breakthroughs in physics may appear in nanometer scale. So, as a physical researcher, we should hijack this chance. 

Xiaosheng Fang, Institute of Solid Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, P.R. China