03 September 2007

Nano-diamonds by the kilogram: bricks on a pallet for nanotech

Diamandoids (like the animated decamantane molecule at the right) are perfect, molecular-sized diamond crystals. They require no polishing or cleaving by expert jewelers, nor (being sub-microscopic) are they necessarily a girl's best friend. But they retain signature characteristics of jewelry-store diamonds: strength, rigidity, and interesting optical and mechanical properties. Where they differ from serious bling is in their newfound abundance: ChevronTexaco researchers have developed ways of making specific diamandoid molecules in kilogram quantities with high purity and yield.

Originally observed in raw petroleum, the ability to manufacture specific diamandoids has eluded researchers until now. Suddenly they're like any industrial chemical. Potential areas of significant import include drug delivery, lubrication, microelectronics, nanomechanisms and a host of other applications, including some quite exotic ones.

But mostly, advances like this illustrate how nanotechnology is at square one. These are the figurative building blocks (and literal bricks) of a future just beyond the reach of imagination. I liken this to the advent of the transistor as a commercial commidity in the 1960s. For legions of my fellow childhood Heathkit-builders, transistors were stubby little tin-can gizmos with three wires sticking out. They had to be meticulously soldered into place one-by-one, and they weren't cheap. Who at that time could have imagined that multicore processors, iPods, the Internet, WiFi, cell phones and everything else we take for granted would be reality today? Sure, there was science-fiction and Dick Tracy's wrist-communicator, but we all knew that stuff was fiction and that anyone who really believed that such things were on the horizon was either dreaming or slightly nuts. Yet the reality just 40 years later is even more stunning. (However, I'm still waiting for my flying car.)

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson has said that the next twenty years' technological progress will equal that of the entire 20th Century. This is a good example of why he's right.

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