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Nanotech Dreams-A Tiny Proposal For FFH



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Nanotech Dreams—

A Tiny Proposal


By John Voket

When it comes to imagining one of America’s first advance degree academies in a particular area of cutting-edge science, Newtown resident Oscar Berendsohn dreams big. But in suggesting such an academic facility, which he hopes to see considered for development on the Fairfield Hills property, this 80-something retired materials engineer also has to dream small…very, very small.

Mr Berendsohn recently spoke before the Newtown Legislative Council, encouraging its members to endorse an ordinance creating a non-policy-making authority to in part, transact leases for any appropriate buildings remaining after demolition activities are completed. He told The Bee in a subsequent interview, that a number of existing buildings remaining from the former state hospital, and certainly areas of the grounds, would be appropriate for a small institute that would be among the first, or possibly even the first, in the United States to offer doctorate and master’s degrees in nanotechnology.

According to the Internet site Wisegeek.com, nanotechnology is now used to refer to a wide range of scientific or technological projects that focus on phenomena or properties of the nanometer scale. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is already a blossoming field, but molecular nanotechnology — the goal of productive, molecular-scale machine systems — is still in the preliminary research stage.

Mr Berendsohn said he had already discussed the idea with friends in his and related fields, as well as fellow alumni of his alma mater Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, now called the Polytechnic University of New York.

“I would like to see a graduate study center branch similar to one they opened in Westchester [N.Y.],” he said. “I’m willing to solicit as much support as possible from the school, but we have to get public support for the idea locally.”

The engineer foresees the institute quickly becoming an extremely prestigious destination for top students and experts in the field drawn to Newtown from across the globe. And while providing what he described as, “an incredible opportunity for Newtown students and residents,” to experience the work and studies in this field right in their own backyard, Mr Berendsohn also sees such a facility as an economic development catalyst as well.

“Typically, wherever an institute of this nature opens up, it becomes surrounded by industries supporting the science,” he said. Mr Berendsohn pointed to Connecticut’s Bioscience cluster and other similar initiatives that have spurred welcome high tech development and new commercial tax bases across the region.

The Newtown retiree said he finds the relatively short history of nanotechnology “fascinating.” Nanotechnology was first introduced in 1959, in a talk by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

Dr Feynman proposed using a set of conventional-sized robot arms to construct a replica of themselves, but one-tenth the original size, then using that new set of arms to manufacture an even smaller set, and so on, until the molecular scale is reached. “If we had many millions or billions of such molecular-scale arms, we could program them to work together to create macro-scale products built from individual molecules — a ‘bottom-up manufacturing’ technique, as opposed to the usual technique of cutting away material until you have a completed component or product – ‘top-down manufacturing.’”

Dr Feynman’s idea remained fairly obscure until the mid-1980s, when the MIT-educated engineer K. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation, a book to popularize the potential of molecular nanotechnology (MNT). Because MNT would allow manufacturers to fabricate products from the bottom up with precise molecular control, a very wide range of chemically possible structures could be created.

Since MNT systems could put every molecule in its specific place, molecular manufacturing processes could be very clean and efficient. Also, because every little bit of matter in a molecular nanotechnology system would be part of a nano-scale manipulator, nanotechnological systems could be far more productive and maintain much higher throughputs than modern manufacturing techniques, which use macro-scale manipulators to fabricate products.

According to Wisegeek.com, an MNT revolution would require an “assembler” — a reprogrammable nano-scale manipulator capable of creating a wide range of molecular structures, including a complete copy of itself. The first assemblers will only function effectively in lab-controlled environments, such as a vacuum.

The advent of self-replicating molecular nanomachines could quickly lead to desktop nanofactories, tabletop appliances that consume modest amounts of power and contain the software required to manufacture an interesting range of useful products. The arrival of MNT would revolutionize wide sectors of human activity, including manufacturing, medicine, scientific research, communication, computing, and warfare.

When full-blown molecular nanotechnology will arrive is currently unknown, but many experts foresee its arrival between 2010 and 2020.

“This field today is like computer science was 40 or 50 years ago,” Mr Berendsohn said excitedly. “If we were to make this happen now, our community could be the center of this emerging science. Imagine the status of Newtown having the country’s first advanced academy for this pursuit?”

Mr Berendsohn admits that a conversation about nanotechnology and what it does, is not well suited for a quick elevator ride, but once he gets people talking about it, his inspiration for such an academic facility here in Newtown becomes infectious.

“Right now, I believe they are using the science to increase the surface area of electrodes on batteries,” he explained. “By using nanotechnology you’ll soon be able to get something as powerful as a car battery that could be as small as a hearing-aid battery.”

In the medical field, Mr Berendsohn said he read about doctors using nanotechnology to implant submicroscopic gold flakes inside the center of cancer cells and then melting the gold with microwaves, thereby killing the cancer from the inside out without negatively impacting the rest of the body like conventional radiation and chemotherapy does.

“And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

In the coming weeks, Mr Berendsohn said he plans to formally bring his plans before the Board of Selectmen and possibly the Legislative Council, to begin exploring the level of support among town leaders for such an institute.

“From an engineering and applied science perspective, a facility like this could really put Newtown on the map as nanotechnology begins to rapidly develop in the coming years,” Mr Berendsohn said.

At 83 years old, Mr Berendsohn admits that he may not be around to see the ribbon cutting. But he believes the future of this futuristic science can begin right here in Newtown.

“We won’t be a footnote in the history books,” he said with a smile, “we’ll write the history books.”

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