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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Basic Research Hearing on the State of Nanotechnology and Its Prospects for the Future

June 22, 1999

The House Science Committee Subcommittee on Basic research examined the state of nanotechnology and its prospects for the future in a hearing on June 22.

Dr. Eugene Wong, Assistant Director for Engineering, described how techniques for working at the scale of nanometers (a human hair is about 10,000 nanometers) have transformed the way scientists and engineers think about materials, electronics, medicine, and energy technologies. By exploiting properties that exist at the molecular level, it is possible to design and synthesize materials that will find applications in microcomputer chips, new types of batteries, artificial photosynthesis, medical diagnosis and treatment, as well as a host of strong, lightweight materials.

Dr. Richard Smalley, a Nobel Laureate at Rice University, spoke eloquently about the potential for understanding and applying nanotechnology in biological systems as a way of providing treatments for cancer. Research on carbon nano-tubes is expected to result in fibers 100 times stronger than steel, at only one-sixth the weight.

Dr. Paul McWhorter, Sandia National Laboratories, narrated a video of micro-machines made of silicon with features smaller than a human red blood cell. He predicted that micromachines will have the same profound impact on our lives in the next 30 years that microelectronics have had in the past 30 years.

Dr. Ralph Merkle, Xerox PARC, envisioned a pervasive change in manufacturing with the growth molecular nanotechnology. A complete understanding of the self-replicating processes of DNA should lead us to the ability to develop programmable self-replicating assemblers capable of making a wide range of products from non-biological materials.

All of the witnesses emphasized the need to capitalize on the early advances in nanotechnology with increased funding for a coordinated interagency research initiative. Currently, nanotechnology research accounts for about $230 million in the Federal research portfolio. Committee members were interested in how we monitor what other nations are doing in nanotechnology and how an enhanced interagency effort would be managed.