Today's popular excitement about the concept probably dates back to a 1959, says Magnus Gittins, CEO and president, Advanced Nanotech Inc., New York. He's referring to the year physicist Richard P. Feynman addressed the prospects for nanotechnology at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology.
In delivering "There Is Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Feynman asserted that "the principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."
Technically that challenge of not being able to reach down into the nano world began to be met starting in 1981 with the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) by IBM Corp.'s Heinrich Rhrer and Gerd Karl Binnig. They received the Nobel Prize five years later. Then came the atomic force microscope that produces STM-type resolution by moving a tip across a surface to create a topographical map. In 1989 IBM scientists in Zurich, using the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope, demonstrated that it is possible to precisely position 35 xenon atoms to spell "IBM."
In the same time frame a significant new nanomaterial was discovered--carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders of carbon atoms. Sumio Lijino a researcher at NEC, Tsukuba, Japan, found there was more to the carbon than graphite, diamonds or the 60 atom cages of carbon called Buckminsterfullerene or buckyballs. (The buckyball discovery was made six years earlier at the Universities of Arizona and Heidelberg.) Lijino, while attempting to synthesize variants of buckyballs passed an electrical discharge between graphite rods in a chamber filled with helium. Experimenting, Lijino held the graphite rods apart and found that the arcing resulted in sooty deposits of nanotubes instead of buckyballs.
Since Lijino's discovery carbon nanotube technology has overtaken buckyballs in terms of commercial potential. Stiffer than any other known material, carbon nanotubes also come with electrical properties that demonstrate potential for the future development of nanoelectronic devices, sensors, and computers.