Yesterday I attended a panel about Nanotechnology. Paul Saffo was the moderator and Howard C. Birndorf of Nanogen, Mildren S. Dresselhaus of MIT and John Gage of Sun were on the panel. You could tell from the beginning that it was going to be a really difficult panel for Paul to manage. The topic was difficult, there were PhD's, investors and mildly interested CEO's of big companies in the audience. It was also clear that everyone on the panel had their own opinion about what they wanted to say. Paul tried to structure the discussion from a discussion about scale (Gage went into a description of powers of ten) to a technology discussion. I think he wanted wrap up with a discussion about applications. It sort of worked.
The technology discussion was a bit difficult for lay people. One person later described the session this way: It was like Milly dropped a stun grenade and the rest of the PhD's in the room were like Navy Seals who came in and took care everyone out. I think the panel quickly left many of the people behind. On the other hand, I was pleased because the technology discussion was quite substantive. Milly explained that real progress was being made in carbon nanotubes and in nanowires. She said that one of the problems as well as one of the interesting properties of nanotubes is that they can be either metallic or semi-conducting. The difficulty was that you couldn't control which you were making. It seemed like she liked the nanowires better. She said that you could put antibodies on the nanowires which would react when the antibody came in contact with the matching antigen. Lots of different antibodies on the ends of nanowires could be used to create a nanodevice to detect the presence of a variety of difficult to detect antigens. She also talked about nanolasers and quantum dots that can help you see the state of devices.
Everyone agreed that one of the biggest problems was how to interface with the tiny devices. Quantum dots and optical seemed to be a good idea. The Dean of engineering for Berkeley was in the audience and he explained that light moved slower around quantum dots and that this could be used to "store light" and could have a huge impact on optical networks and computing.
Some of the applications that people got excited about were RNA detection, bacteria that would manufacture nanotech devices, displays, computing... There seemed to be a myriad of medical applications as well. Having said that, it seemed like everything was about 15 years away and that the equipment necessary for research was still prohibitively expensive. Someone mentioned that Japan was leading in R&D spending on nanotech. Someone also said that maybe it could save the nano-economic recession. Someone else mentioned that the recession wasn't a nano-issue.
Later I was able to catch Milly in the hall and ask her what she thought about carbon nanotubes and hydrogen storage. She said that it was still quite difficult and it would require a breakthrough.