Skip to main content
Email Print Share




M.C. Roco, Chair, WH/NSTC/Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee (NSEC), and Senior Advisor, NSF,

Chair, National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology,

(*) Based on the presentation made at the Cornell Nanofabrication Center, September 15, 2000.


All natural and living systems are governed by atomic and molecular behavior at the nanoscale. Research is now seeking systematic approaches to create revolutionary new products and technologies by control of matter at the same scale. Fundamental discoveries and potential implications of nanotechnology to wealth, health and peace have captured the imagination of scientists, industry and government experts. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) has become a top national priority in science and technology in U.S. for fiscal year 2001, with a Federal nanotechnology investment portfolio of $422 million. Nanotechnology is expected to have a profound impact on our economy and society in the earlier 21st century.

The vision, research and development strategy, and timeline of the nanotechnology initiative are presented by using several recent scientific discoveries and results from industry.


The essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular levels in order to create materials, devices and systems with fundamentally new properties and functions. Building blocks are atoms and molecules, or their assemblies such as nanoparticles, nanolayers, nanowires and nanotubes. The relative arrangement of the elementary blocks of matter into their assemblies leads to new properties and functions even for the same chemical composition. For example, the arrangement of the carbon atoms at nanoscale is the only difference between soft graphite, hard diamond, and conducting nanotubes. Machines with complex functions on the scale of a virus or a human cell are envisioned.

Scientific discoveries and technological innovations are at the core of human endeavor. Besides the societal needs of wealth and health, there is an intrinsic need for intellectual advancement, working at the frontiers. The intellectual drive towards the nanoworld has sparked the current developments in nanoscale science and engineering. Nanotechnology will allow us to reach beyond our natural size limitation and work directly at the building blocks of matter. This holds the promise for a new renaissance in our understanding of nature, means for improving human performance, and a new industrial revolution in coming decades. We are beginning not only to see, touch, smell, and uncover unique phenomena at the building blocks of matter, but also to manipulate them and manufacture under control for a given purpose. Understanding the nature and manufacturing at the nanoscale may have wide implications on our civilization in long term. Because of the high risk – high return, long term, broad based and interdisciplinary nature of the research and development (R&D) and the potential societal benefits, nanotechnology has received national public attention and support in U.S. (NSTC, 1999 and 2000). Interest towards nanoscale research is growing in virtually every industrial nation.


The first level of organization of atoms and molecules into "defect free" coherent structures such as crystalline grains, clusters, or biomotors is at the nanoscale. This scale is between a single atom and bulk behavior; that is, between a fraction of nanometer to about 100 nanometers as a function of the material structure and phenomena under consideration. At the nanoscale, living and non-biological materials can interact and establish hybrid systems, and interactions are determined by a rich information on surfaces. Most of the specific phenomena manifest at distances just under 10-20 nanometers. This is the scale where the basic building blocks of matter are established, where the fundamental properties are defined and can be adjusted as a function of the size, shape and pattern of the matter at the nanoscale. The way in which the matter is organized further into larger structures also plays an essential role on the bulk behavior. In nanotechnology, we are looking to engineer products by control at the nanoscale and integration along larger scales.

Establishing understanding and manufacturing methods at the building blocks of matter is a historical opportunity in human development. The ability to rearrange matter on a nanoscale is potentially a very economical way to obtain functionality, with the promise of becoming the highest-added-value manufacturing approach. The matter can be rearranged at this scale by using weak interactions, such as electrostatic dipole, hydrogen bonds, van der Walls forces, hydrophobic/hydrophilic interactions, complimentary DNA hybridization, fluidic assembly, and other assembling and patterning approaches. Guided selfassembling is an example where the arrangement of molecules is made under control by an external magnetic field, electric field, flow field, templating or other means. Manipulation of matter with atomic/molecular precision by weak interactions requires relatively low energy dissipation, significantly lower that changes at the subatomic level or changes at larger scales for obtaining the same property or function. It may become the ultimate manufacturing approach once one would achieve fundamental understanding of phenomena and processes at that scale.

Nanoscale is a complex interdisciplinary playground. A nanoscale system requires time- dependent investigations of various simultaneous phenomena among a large number of components and scales.


At the end of 1996, we have identified nanotechnology as a dormant opportunity with immense potential, and we began the process of establishing a vision for the field, what should be achieved, and how to reach the best outcomes. Pervasive scientific drivers toward the nanoworld and the promise of high societal return were the reasons. Discovery of novel material structures with fundamentally new properties, new tools demonstrating nanoscale phenomena, new molecular assembling and fabrication techniques leading to nanoscale manufacturing, were facts suggesting a set of general and unitary principles for a variety of disciplines and areas of application. The promise to better understand nature, a new world of products that are not possible otherwise, highly efficient manufacturing of almost all human made objects, molecular medicine and an avenue to long term sustainable development were the main societal drivers.

Education will move from the microscopic to molecular concepts at all levels, and more general and creative research will be stimulated. A significant benefit is the synergism among disciplines and areas of relevance. Nanotechnology R&D should encourage studies on societal and educational implications.

Current scientific breakthroughs that act as internal stimuli for further nanotechnology R&D. Nanoparticles and nanolayers with different functions, tubes and wires of various materials, three-dimensional molecular assemblies and tissue replacements, have been synthesized. Novel tools such as the nano-mechanical tweezers and various microscopes have been developed. Quantum behavior at room temperature and quantum corral have been demonstrated. New processes include guided selfassembling, biomimetic templating, and fabrication with atomic precision. Ultrasmall devices have been designed and tested, including molecular electronics devices, nanobiomotors, nano- electro-mechanical systems (NEMS). Examples of area of relevance are revolutionary computing (chemical, DNA-based, quantum computing, spin electronics), preparation of chemicals and biostructures, new drug synthesis and delivery methods into human body, multifunctional nanostructured composite materials, to name only a few. The main scientific drivers are discovery of new phenomena at nanoscale, methods of measurements and modeling of large number of nano-objects, understanding the connection between nanostructure and function, manipulation with atomic and molecular precision, assembling and connecting at nanoscale, understanding modern biology and the synergism with information technology.

The promise of nanoscale science and engineering for understanding the nature, improving health, wealth, sustainable development and peace acts as an external stimulus for the field. Here are several examples based on research in progress or envisioned by private sector:

  • Manufacturing: The nanometer scale is expected to become a highly efficient length scale for manufacturing. Materials with high performance, unique properties and functions will be produced that traditional chemistry could not create.
  • Electronics: Nanotechnology is projected to yield annual production about $300 billion for the semiconductor industry and few times more for global integrated circuits sales within 10 to15 years.
  • Improved Healthcare: Nanotechnology will help extend the life span, improve its quality, and extend human physical capabilities.
  • Pharmaceuticals: About half of all production will be dependent on nanotechnology - affecting over $180 billion per year in 10 to15 years.
  • Chemical Plants: Nanostructured catalysts have applications in the petroleum and chemical processing industries, with an estimated annual impact of $100 billion in 10 to 15 years.
  • Sustainability: Nanotechnology will improve agricultural yields for an increased population, provide more economical water filtration and desalination (such as the DARPA flow through capacitator with aligned carbon nanotube electrodes), and enable renewable energy sources (such as highly efficient solar energy conversion); it will reduce the need for scarce material resources and diminish pollution for a cleaner environment. For example, in 10-15 years, projections indicate that such nanotechnology-based lighting advances have the potential to reduce worldwide consumption of energy by more than 10%, reflecting a savings of $100 billion dollars per year and a corresponding reduction of 200 million tons of carbon emissions.

These examples show that nanotechnology has the potential to significantly change a large cross-section of the economy in the next decades in industrialized countries. Technology drivers include extension of Moore's law behind microelectronics, biologically based devices and biomimetics, new functional materials (constructive, catalysts, pharmaceutics, etc.), quantum technology and portable electronic devices.


Physical, chemical, biological, materials and engineering sciences have arrived to nanoscale about the same time. Engineering plays an important role because when we refer to nanotechnology we speak about ‘systems’ at nanoscale, where the treatment of simultaneous phenomena in multibody assemblies would require integration of disciplinary methods of investigation and an engineering system approach. The manipulation of a large system of molecules is equally challenging to a thermodynamics engineer researcher as it is to a single-electron physics researcher. They need to work together. Engineering needs to redefine its domain of relevance to effectively take this role in conjunction with other disciplines. Several reasons for an increased role of engineering are:

  • Nanotechnology deals with systems at nanoscale, which are hierarchically integrated in architectures at larger scales. Typically, the number of components is in the range of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands. Such components are defined by their collective behavior.
  • Multiple phenomena act simultaneous. Nanotechnology requires the integration of the methods of investigation from various disciplines in order to understand macroscopic phenomena, define transport coefficients, optimize processes and design products. Various methods need to be considered at different length scales. For instance, multiscale modeling of dynamic fracture would require finite element simulation of continuum elasticity, then atomistic simulation of Newton’s equation and thereafter electronic simulation of Schrodinger’s equation.
  • Nanotechnology implies the ability to manipulate the matter under control at the nanoscale and integrate manufacturing along scales. Main challenges are creation of tailored structures at the nanoscale, and combination of the bottom-up and top-down approaches to generate nanostructured devices and systems. Further challenges are integration of living and non-living structures, replication and eventually self-replication methods at nanoscale, and development of new concepts that would allow economic scale-up for industrial production.
  • Development of tools and processes to measure, calibrate and manufacture.

The engineering community needs to redefine the role of engineering from analysis, design and manufacturing mainly at the macro- and micro- scales towards the ‘nanoscale engineering’; improve education and training of engineers to better understand phenomena and processes from the atomic, molecular and macromolecular levels; and address problem-driven and interdisciplinary nanotechnology R&D where engineering plays an important role.


Six increasingly interconnected megatrends in science and engineering are perceived as dominating the scene for the next decades:

  • Information and computing
  • Nanoscale science and engineering
  • Biology and bio-environmental approaches
  • Medical sciences and eventually enhancing human physical capabilities
  • Cognitive sciences concerned with exploring and enhancing intellectual abilities
  • Collective behavior and system approach to study nature, technology and society

Such advancements evolve in coherence, with multiple areas of confluence and with temporary divergences. For example, information technology helps to simulate and visualize the nanoworld, and nanoscale tools help measurement and manipulation of DNA. Nanoscale science and engineering is expected to grow in close synergism with the digital revolution and modern biology. It is the most exploratory and a condition for the development of the other two in the next 10-15 years. Melding of human development with science and engineering development is also notable. Fundamental discoveries and revolutionary innovations at nanoscale create a tension between the society’s quest for more control over nature in the future, and society’s strong desire for stability and predictability in the present. The development of nanoscale science and engineering is considered in this broader perspective.


A planning activity at the national level to advance nanoscale science and engineering R&D has been underway in the U.S. since October 1998 when the Interagency Working Group on Nanoscience, Engineering and Technology (IWGN) has been established by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The plan would ensure that the fundamental sciences and key technological opportunities of nanotechnology would reach their potential sooner, that a flexible and balanced infrastructure and educated workforce would be available for nanotechnology development, and key technological grand challenges would be addressed (Roco, 1999). NNI was proposed at the White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Committee of Technology at the meeting on March 10, 1999.

The nanoscale science, engineering and technology budget of all U.S. Federal agencies of $116 million in fiscal year 1997 has increased to about $255 million in 1999 and $270 million in 2000 (NSTC, 2000). The report “Nanotechnology Research Directions” (Roco, Williams and Alivisatos, eds., NSTC, 1999) calls for a national initiative in fiscal year 2001 that will significantly increase the Federal government annual investment to about half billion dollars. On May 12, 1999, Richard Smalley, Nobel Laureate, concluded in his testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space that “We are about to be able to build things that work on the smallest possible length scales. It is in our Nation's best interest to move boldly into this new field.” On June 22, 1999, the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the Committee on Science organized the hearing on "Nanotechnology: The State of Nano-Science and Its Prospects for the Next Decade". The Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith, Michigan concluded the hearings stating that "Nanotechnology holds promise for breakthroughs in health, manufacturing, agriculture, energy use and national security. It is sufficient information to aggressively address funding of this field.” On November 18, 1999, the Presidential Council of Advisers in Science and Technology (PCAST) Nanotechnology Panel met and prepared a recommendation to the Administration. The White House announced NNI in January 2000 and submitted the NNI plan to Congress in February 2000. NSTC has established the Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) as part of the Committee on Technology in August 2000. Its goal is to work towards NNI implementation, facilitate interagency collaboration for nanoscale R&D, continue to define the vision for nanotechnology, and provide a framework form establishing federal R&D priorities and budget. Twelve departments and independent agencies participate at this moment.

President Clinton announced the initiative on January 21, 2000, at Caltech: "Imagine the possibilities: materials with ten times the strength of steel and only a small fraction - shrinking all the information housed at the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube - detecting cancerous tumors when they are only a few cell in size". Some of our research goals may take 20 or more years to achieve, but that is precisely why there is an important role for the federal government". Since January 2000, research in these three areas has progressed much faster then expected. A White House letter signed jointly by the Office of Science and technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget and sent to all agencies in the Fall 2000 has placed nanotechnology at the top of the list of emerging fields of research and development in the U.S.

NNI will ensure that investments in this area are made in a coordinated and timely manner, and will accelerate the pace of revolutionary discoveries now occurring in nanoscale science and engineering. This effort will:

  • Expedite long-term, fundamental research aimed at discovering novel phenomena, processes and tools, including nanoscale systems that are important in biology and in the environment
  • Address the synthesis and processing of engineered, nanometer-scale building blocks for materials and system components,
  • Develop new device concepts and system architecture appropriate to the unique features and demands of nanoscale engineering,
  • Apply nanostructured materials to innovative technologies for commerce (manufacturing, computing and communications, power systems, energy), health, environment and Earth sciences, and national security,
  • Educate and train a new generation of skilled workers in the multidisciplinary perspectives necessary for rapid progress in nanotechnology, and
  • Address the societal implications of the scientific and technological advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

The key challenges and opportunities of the NNI have been addressed in a series of publication: “Nanostructure Science and Technology” (Siegel et al., eds., NSTC, 1999; this is a worldwide comparative study); “Nanotechnology Research Directions” (Roco et al., eds., NSTC, 1999; it provides a vision for the next decade); “National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and the Implementation Plan” (NSTC, 2000; goals and plans for fiscal year 2001); “Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology” (Roco and Bainbridge, eds., workshop proceedings, 2000); and “Nanotechnology - Shaping the World Atom by Atom” (NSTC, 1999; brochure for the public).


The NNI enacted by Congress in November 2000 will expand the Federal nanotechnology investment portfolio to $422 million dollars in fiscal year 2001, a 56% increase over the previous year. The research and development priorities have been developed in consultation with experts from academe, private sector and government laboratories, as well as through the coordination of the funding agencies. The investments of six U.S. departments and independent agencies are shown in the following table.

Department/Agency FY 1997 FY 1999 FY 2001
NSF $65 million $85 million $150 million
DOD (including DARPA, ARO, AFOSR, ONR) $32 million $70 million $110 million
DOE $7 million $58 million $93 million
NIST (DOC) $4 million (with ATP) $16 million (with ATP) $10 million (without ATP)
NASA $3 million $5 million $20 million
NIH $5 million $21 million $39 million
Total $116 million $255 million $422 million

NSF will make the largest investment of $150 million in fiscal year 2001. NSF programs embrace topics from chemistry, materials, molecular biology and engineering to revolutionary computing, mathematics, geosciences and social sciences. The first "nano" program on Nanoparticle Synthesis and Processing has been initiated in 1991, and the National Nanofabrication User Network has been established in 1994. About 650 projects with over 2,700 faculty and students, and more than ten centers, were supported in fiscal year 2000.

Nine areas for "grand challenges" are targeted by all participating funding agencies in the first year of NNI:

  • Nanostructured materials by design-stronger, lighter, harder, self-repairing, and safer
  • Nanoelectronics, optoelectronics, and magnetics
  • Advanced healthcare, therapeutics, and diagnostics
  • Nanoscale processes for environmental improvement
  • Efficient energy conversion and storage
  • Microcraft space exploration, and industrialization
  • Bionanosensors for communicable disease and biological threat detection
  • Applications to economical and safe transportation
  • Applications to national security.

New grand challenges on instrumentation, nanoscale manufacturing, focused on single molecule, and improving human performance are under consideration for the second year (fiscal year 2002). The NSTC interagency subcommittee is actively seeking input from research groups, professional societies and industry on new, exciting challenges to be considered for next years.

The NNI implementation plan in fiscal year 2001 (October 2000 - September 2001) includes the proposed funding themes and modes of support by the U.S. funding agencies, as well as coordinated activities in order to increase the synergism, avoid unnecessary overlapping, and create a balance and flexible infrastructure. The following program solicitations for fiscal year 2001 proposals have been issued as part of the NNI implementation plan (full information is available on (Schultz, 2000):

  • National Science Foundation: “Nanoscale Science and Engineering”, for interdisciplinary team research, centers and exploratory research
  • Department of Defense: “Defense University Research Initiatives on Nanotechnology (DURINT)” for research projects and equipment (see also Murday, 1999)
  • Department of Energy: “Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology” for materials, chemical and engineering sciences
  • DARPA: “Simulation of Bio-Molecular Systems” for R&D projects
  • NASA, announcements related to NASA labs and academic institutions
  • NIH, various components through various participating NIH institutes

The NSF program solicitation on Nanoscale Science and Engineering is part of the NSF contribution to NNI in the first year (see The program is focused on biosystems at nanoscale, novel phenomena and structure, quantum control, novel devices and architectures for integrated nano-systems, nanoscale processes in environment, multiphenomena/multiscale modeling and simulation, as well as societal implications studies and education. Interdisciplinary teams, synergistic centers and exploratory research are encouraged in this solicitation, while single investigator research and education are supported throughout all NSF programs.

Nanoscale science and engineering R&D is mostly in a precompetitive phase. International collaboration in fundamental research, long-term grand challenges, metrology, education and studies on societal implications will play an important role in the affirmation and growth of the field. NNI develops in this context. The vision setting and collaborative model of NNI has received international acceptance, and most industrialized countries are establishing or are planning to establish their own programs. Opportunities for collaboration towards an international nanotechnology effort will increase once those national programs are in place. Priorities for research and education will be topics addressing development of humanity and our civilization. Examples include understanding single molecules and operation of single cells, improving health and the human performance, assembling tools for the building blocks of matter, high productivity in manufacturing, highly efficient solar energy conversion and water desalinization for sustainable development.


The vision of the NNI includes a path to discoveries of new properties and phenomena at the nanoscale, working directly at the building blocks of matter with cross-cutting approaches and tools applicable to almost all man made objects, and development of highly efficient manufacturing. This is completed by the promise of better comprehension of the nature, increased wealth, better healthcare and long-term sustainable development. The vision has been adopted by a broad coalition of academe, private sector, government R&D laboratories, and U.S. funding agencies. President Clinton announced the research and development program in January 2000, and in November 2000 the U.S. Congress enacted the $422 million NNI budget for fiscal year 2001.

Nanoparticle synthesis and processing is an essential component of nanotechnology because the specific properties are realized at the nanoparticle, nanocrystal, nanotube or nanolayer level, and assembling of precursor particles and related structures is the most generic route to generate nanostructured materials.

Science, technology, and economic factors are expected to bring nanotechnology to a central role in our lives in just one to two decades. We are just at the beginning of the development curve. In medium term, a five-year national effort is needed to reach the uprising section of that curve. The NNI strategic plan emphasizes exploratory research areas, support for R&D nanotechnology grand challenges, education and training at all levels, and establishing a balanced and flexible infrastructure. Nanotechnology may offer the answer for enhanced productivity, new products beyond existing technology, longer and better quality of life, sustainable development, and superior national security. We may be limited only by our ability to imagine.


The contribution of the NSTC/NSET members in the development of a national vision for nanotechnology research and development in the future is acknowledged. Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of NSET or NSF.


J. Murday, "Science and Technology of Nanostructures in the Department of Defense", J. Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 1, no. 4, 1999, pp. 501-505.

NSTC, "Nanotechnology - Shaping the World Atom by Atom", brochure for the public, NSTC, Washington, D.C., 1999.

NSTC, "National Nanotechnology Initiative: The Initiative and Its Implementation Plan", Washington, D.C., July 2000.

M.C. Roco, R.S. Williams and P. Alivisatos, eds., "Nanotechnology Research Directions", NSTC, Washington, D.C., September 1999 (also Kluwer Acad. Publ., Boston, 2000, 316 pages).

M.C. Roco and W. Bainbridge, eds., “Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology”, Proc of Workshop at NSF, version Dec. 4, 2000

M.C. Roco, "Towards a U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative", J. Nanoparticle Research, Vol. 1, no. 4, 1999, pp. 435-438.

R.W. Siegel, E. Hu and M.C. Roco, eds., "Nanostructure Science and Technology", NSTC, Washington, D.C., August 1999 (also Kluwer Acad. Publ., Boston, 1999, 336 pages).

W. Schultz, "Crafting a National Nanotechnology Effort", C&EN, 2000, pp. 39-42.