Tag Archives: Waldo

Hands, Waldo, and nano-scalpels

Hands were featured in Waldo (a 1943 short story by Robert Heinlein) and in Richard Feynman’s “Plenty of room at the bottom” 1959 lecture both of which were concerned with describing a field we now call nanotechnology. As I put it in my Aug. 17, 2009 posting,

Both of these texts feature the development of ‘smaller and smaller robotic hands to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels’ and both of these have been cited as the birth of nanotechnology.

The details are a bit sketchy but it seems that scientists at the University of Bath (UK) have created a tiny (nanoscale) tool that looks like a hand. From the University of Bath’s Dec. 12, 2011 news release,

The lower picture shows the AFM probe with the nano-hand circled. The upper image is a vastly enlarged image of the nano-hand, showing the beckoning motion spotted by Dr Gordeev.

Here’s a little more about Dr. Gordeev’s observation from the Dec. 12, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,

Dr Sergey Gordeev, from the Department of Physics, was trying to create a nano-scalpel, a tool which can be used by biologists to look inside cells, when the process went wrong.

Dr Gordeev said: “I was amazed when I looked at the nano-scalpel and saw what appeared to be a beckoning hand.

“Nanoscience research is moving very fast at the moment, so maybe the nano-hand is trying to attract people and funders into this area.

The research group is using funding from Bath Ventures, an organisation which commercialises the results of the University’s research, and private company Diamond Hard Surfaces Ltd, to explore the use of hard coatings for nano-tools, making them more durable and suitable for delicate biological procedures.

I appreciate Dr. Gordeev’s whimsical notion that the hand might be trying to attract funding for this research group.

Nano’s grey goo and the animation series Futurama

You never know where you’re going to find nanotechnology. Most recently I found it in a review of the first few episodes of the animated US tv series, Futurama. Alasdair Wilkins recently offered a few thoughts about a recent ‘nanotechnology-influenced’ episode Benderama. From Wilkins’s June 24, 2011 commentary,

“Benderama” is an example of an episode type that pretty much only Futurama is capable of doing: taking an outlandish but vaguely plausible scientific idea and letting that guide the story. Some all-time great episodes have come from this approach: “The Farnsworth Parabox” did this with alternate universes, Bender’s Big Score used time paradoxes (or the lack thereof), and “The Prisoner of Benda” focused on mind-switching. This time around, the topic is the grey goo scenario of nanotechnology, as Bender gains the ability to create two smaller duplicates of himself, who in turn can each create two smaller duplicates of themselves, who in turn…well, you get the idea. Also, the crew deals with Patton Oswalt’s hideous space giant, who can only take so much mockery of his appearance.

The business about smaller duplicates creating smaller duplicates is very reminiscent of Waldo, the story by Robert Heinlein which according to Colin Milburn influenced the part about creating smaller and smaller hands in Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom. From a transcript of Feynman’s talk (scroll down 3/4 of the way),

A hundred tiny hands

When I make my first set of slave “hands” at one-fourth scale, I am going to make ten sets. I make ten sets of “hands,” and I wire them to my original levers so they each do exactly the same thing at the same time in parallel. Now, when I am making my new devices one-quarter again as small, I let each one manufacture ten copies, so that I would have a hundred “hands” at the 1/16th size.

The ‘grey goo’ scenario was first proposed by K. Eric Drexler in his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation. He has distanced himself from some of his original assertions about ‘grey goo’ and there is still debate as to the plausibility of the  scenario.

From a more technical perspective, Feynman, Heinlein and Benderama present a top-down engineering scenario where one continually makes things smaller and smaller as opposed to the increasingly popular bottom-up engineering scenario where one mimics biological processes in an effort to promote self-assembly.

I’m not sure I’d call the science in the episode, ‘outlandish but plausible’ as it seems old-fashioned to me both with regard to the science and the humour. Still the episode seems to offer some  gentle fun on a topic that usually lends itself to ‘end of the earth’ scenarios so it’s nice to see the change in tone.

Oil spills, environmental remediation, and nanotechnology

Oil spills have been on my mind lately as I’ve caught some of the overage about the BP (British Petroleum) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. One  leak (the smallest) has been fixed according to a news item on physorg.com

Days of work off the coast of Louisiana with underwater submarines nearly a mile below the surface finally bore fruit as a valve was secured over the smallest of the three leaks and the flow shut off.

The feat does not alter the overall amount of crude spilling into the sea and threatening the fragile US Gulf coast, but is significant nonetheless as the focus can now narrow on just two remaining leaks.

“Working with two leaks is going to be a lot easier than working with three leaks. Progress is being made,” US Coast Guard Petty Officer Brandon Blackwell told AFP.

More than two weeks after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the full impact of the disaster is being realized as a massive slick looms off the US Gulf coast, imperilling the livelihoods of shoreline communities.

The news item goes on to detail how much crude oil is still being lost, the oil slick’s progress, the probable impact on the shoreline and animals, and the other efforts being made to ameliorate the situation.

With all the talk there is about nanotechnology’s potential for helping us to clean up these messes, there’s been no mention of it in the current  efforts as Dexter Johnson over at the IEEE’s (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)  Nanoclast blog pointed out the other day. From Dexter’s posting which features both a  discussion about patents for nanotechnology-enabled clean up products and an interview with Tim Harper,

So to get a sense of where we really are I wanted to get the perspective of my colleague, Tim Harper (principal of Cientifica), who in addition to being a noted expert on the commercialization of nanotechnologies also has devoted his attention to the use of nanotechnologies in cleantech including its remediation capabilities, leading him to his presentation this week in Australia at the conference Cleantech Science and Solutions: mainstream and at the edge.

“If you are looking for a quick fix from nanotechnology, forget it,” says Harper. “Nanotech is already making an impact in reducing energy, and therefore oil use, it is also being used to create stronger lighter materials that can be used for pipelines, and enabling better sensors for early warning of damage, but in terms of cleaning up the mess, the contribution is minor at best.”

Clearly not the hopeful words that many would have hoped for, and the pity is that it might have been different, according to Harper.

“As with all technologies, the applications take a while to develop,” he says. “If someone had come up with some funding 10 years ago for this specific application then we may have had better tools to deal with it.”

Dexter’s posting about patents and Harper’s comments reminded me of an article by Mason Inman I saw two years ago on the New Scientist website titled, Nanotech ’tissue’ loves oil spills, hates water. From the article,

A material with remarkable oil-absorbing properties has been developed by US researchers. It could help develop high-tech “towels” able to soak up oil spills at sea faster, protecting wildlife and human health.

Almost 200,000 tonnes of oil have been spilled at sea in accidents since the start of the decade, according to the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation. [This article was posted May 30, 2008]

Clean-up methods have improved in recent years, but separating oil from thousands of gallons of water is still difficult and perhaps the biggest barrier to faster clean ups.

The new water-repellent material is based on manganese oxide nanowires and could provide a blueprint for a new generation of oil-spill cleaners. It is able to absorb up to 20 times its own weight in oil, without sucking up a drop of water.


But [Joerg] Lahann [University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US]  points out that manganese oxide may not be the best material for real-world applications because it could be toxic. He says, though, that the new material “clearly provides a blueprint that can guide the design of future nanomaterials for environmental applications.”

I wonder if they’ve done any research to determine if manganese oxide in the shape and size required to create this nanotech ’tissue’ is toxic. Intriguingly, there was a recent news item on Nanowerk about toxicology research in a marine environment being undertaken.

Led by Dr. Emilien Pelletier, the Institut des Sciences de la Mer de Rimouski at the Université du Québec à Rimouski has obtained an LVEM5 benchtop electron microscope to help them study the short-term and long-term effects of nano-materials on the marine environment.

Dr. Pelletier is the Canada Research Chair in Marine Ecotoxicology. The overall objective of the chair is to understand the impact of natural and anthropogenic stresses on the short-and long-term high-latitude coastal ecosystems to contribute to the conservation, protection and sustainable development of cold coastal marine resources.

Since the news release was written by the company supplying the microscope there is no word as to exactly what Emilien’s team will be researching and how the work might have an impact on other members of the community such as the researchers with the ‘oil-hungry nanotech tissue’ made of nanoscale manganese oxide.

There is as always a political element to all of this discussion about what we could or couldn’t do with nanotechnology-enabled means to clean up oil spills and/or reduce/eliminate our dependence on oil. This discussion is not new as Dr. J. Storrs Hall implies during a presentation being reported in a recent (May 4, 2010) Foresight Institute blog entry by Dave Cronz, PhD. From the posting,

Here I offer my reflections on some of the highlights of the presentation by Dr. J. Storrs Hall of the Foresight Institute, entitled “Feynman’s Pathway to Nanomanufacturing,” and the panel discussion that followed, “How Do We Get There from Here?” Discussions such as these are crucial opportunities to reflect on – and potentially shape – emerging technologies whose destinies are often left to be determined by “market forces.”

Dr. Hall began with an intriguing argument: Feynman’s top-down approach to reaching the nano scale in manufacturing, achieved through a step-down method of replicating and miniaturizing an entire, fully-equipped machine shop in 1:4 scale over and over would yield countless benefits to science, engineering, and manufacturing at each step. These microscopic, tele-manipulated master-slave “Waldos” (named after Heinlein’s 1942 story “Waldo F. Jones”) would get nanotechnology back on track by focusing on machines and manufacturing, since most of our current emphasis is on science at the nano scale. Feynman’s top-down approach to nanoscale manufacturing is missing from the Foresight Institute’s roadmap, according to Hall, “for political reasons.” This raises a fundamental point: science and technology cannot develop independent of the political and social spheres, which pose as many challenges as the technology. Many would argue that social and technological processes are inseparable and treating them otherwise borders on folly. I commend Dr. Hall for offering his argument. It soon became clear that the panelists who joined him after his presentation disagreed. [bolded emphases mine]

As Dr. Hall aptly noted it’s not dispassionate calculations but “serendipity: the way science always works.”

I’m in agreement with Dr. Hall, the political and social spheres are inseparable from the scientific and technological spheres. As for “emerging technologies whose destinies  are often left to be determined by market forces”, Dexter’s posting ends with this,

But foresight is not the strong suit of businesses built around short-term profit motives as evidenced by them [BP] not even investing in the remote systems that would have turned the oil well off and possibly avoided the entire problem.

I strongly recommend reading Dexter’s posting to get the nuances and to explore his links.

I’m going to finish on a faint note of hope. There is work being done on site remediation and it seems to be successful, i.e., nonpolluting, less disruptive to the environment, and cheaper.  The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) has a webcast of a presentation titled, Contaminated Site Remediation: Are Nanomaterials the Answer?. You can find my comments about the webcast here (scoll down a bit) and PEN’s Nanoremediation Map which lists projects around the world although most are in the US. It’s incomplete since there is no requirement to report a nanoremediation site to PEN but it does give you an idea of what’s going on. Canada has two sites on the map.

Waldo and robot hands circa. 2009; innovation in Canada, John Manley, and the university community

Shades of Robert Heinlein’s 1943 short story, Waldo, and Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk, There’s plenty of room at the bottom, to the American Physical Society!  Both of these texts feature the development of ‘smaller and smaller robotic hands to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular levels’ and both of these have been cited as the birth of nanotechnology. The NanoHand Project (funded by the European Union) has developed microrobots designed to handle carbon nanotubes, according to the media release on Nanowerk News.  From the media release,

The robots, about two centimetres in size, work inside a scanning electron microscope where their activities can be followed by an observer. “The whole set-up is integrated into the vacuum chamber of the microscope,” [Volkmar] Eichhorn [of the University of Oldenberg] explains. “There is a glass plate where these mobile microrobots can walk around.”

Each robot has a ‘microgripper’ that can make precise and delicate movements. It works on an electrothermal principle to open and close the jaws, much like a pair of tweezers. The jaws open to about 2 micrometres and can pick up objects less than 100 nanometres in size. “[It is] really able to grip micro or even nano objects,”

Eichhorn says. “We have handled objects down to tens of nanometres.”

If you go to Nanowerk News, you will be able to see a video of the microrobots in action or you can go to the NanoHand site here for more information.

“I don’t think you could say that innovation is deeply in the DNA of our Canadian business enterprises,” [John Manley] said, “We have built prosperity, up to and including this decade, on a fairly basic paradigm: we are rich in natural resources.” (from the article, Innovation isn’t in Canada’s DNA by Paul Wells in MacLean’s magazine here.) I agree more closely with Manley’s quote than I do with the article’s headline writer who seems to be implying that Canadians are not genetically disposed to innovation. Manley very specifically fingers business enterprises and not people. (I briefly mentioned the article in my July 31, 2009 posting in the context of a discussion[also in MacLean’s] by the big 5 Canadian universities about funding and innovation.)