Home » George Tulevski: The Next Step in Nanotechnology (Transcript)

George Tulevski: The Next Step in Nanotechnology (Transcript)

The progress is relentless. It’s exponential. It compounds on itself year after year, to the point where if you compare a technology from one generation to the next, they’re almost unrecognizable. And we owe it to ourselves to keep this progress going. We want to say the same thing 10, 20, 30 years from now: look what we’ve done over the last 30 years.

Yet we know this progress may not last forever. In fact, the party’s kind of winding down. It’s like “last call for alcohol,” right? If you look under the covers, by many metrics like speed and performance, the progress has already slowed to a halt.

So if we want to keep this party going, we have to do what we’ve always been able to do, and that is to innovate. So our group’s role and our group’s mission is to innovate by employing carbon nanotubes, because we think that they can provide a path to continue this pace.

They are just like they sound. They’re tiny, hollow tubes of carbon atoms, and their nanoscale size, that small size, gives rise to these just outstanding electronic properties. And the science tells us if we could employ them in computing, we could see up to a ten times improvement in performance. It’s like skipping through several technology generations in just one step. So there we have it.

We have this really important problem and we have what is basically the ideal solution. The science is screaming at us, “This is what you should be doing to solve your problem.” So, all right, let’s get started, let’s do this. But you just run right back into that double-edged sword. This “ideal solution” contains a material that’s impossible to work with.

I’d have to arrange billions of them just to make one single computer chip. It’s that same conundrum, it’s like this undying problem. At this point, we said, “Let’s just stop. Let’s not go down that same road. Let’s just figure out what’s missing. What are we not dealing with? What are we not doing that needs to be done?”

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It’s like in “The Godfather,” right? When Fredo betrays his brother Michael, we all know what needs to be done. Fredo’s got to go. But Michael — he puts it off. Fine, I get it. Their mother’s still alive, it would make her upset.

We just said, “What’s the Fredo in our problem? What are we not dealing with? What are we not doing, but needs to be done to make this a success?” And the answer is that the statue has to build itself. We have to find a way, somehow, to compel, to convince billions of these particles to assemble themselves into the technology. We can’t do it for them. They have to do it for themselves. And it’s the hard way, and this is not trivial, but in this case, it’s the only way.

Now, as it turns out, this is not that alien of a problem. We just don’t build anything this way. People don’t build anything this way. But if you look around — and there’s examples everywhere — Mother Nature builds everything this way. Everything is built from the bottom up.

You can go to the beach, you’ll find these simple organisms that use proteins — basically molecules — to template what is essentially sand, just plucking it from the sea and building these extraordinary architectures with extreme diversity. And nature’s not crude like us, just hacking away. She’s elegant and smart, building with what’s available, molecule by molecule, making structures with a complexity and a diversity that we can’t even approach. And she’s already at the nano. She’s been there for hundreds of millions of years.

We’re the ones that are late to the party. So we decided that we’re going to use the same tool that nature uses, and that’s chemistry. Chemistry is the missing tool. And chemistry works in this case because these nanoscale objects are about the same size as molecules, so we can use them to steer these objects around, much like a tool. That’s exactly what we’ve done in our lab.

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We’ve developed chemistry that goes into the pile of dust, into the pile of nanoparticles, and pulls out exactly the ones we need. Then we can use chemistry to arrange literally billions of these particles into the pattern we need to build circuits. And because we can do that, we can build circuits that are many times faster than what anyone’s been able to make using nanomaterials before. Chemistry’s the missing tool, and every day our tool gets sharper and gets more precise. And eventually — and we hope this is within a handful of years — we can deliver on one of those original promises.

Now, computing is just one example. It’s the one that I’m interested in, that my group is really invested in, but there are others in renewable energy, in medicine, in structural materials, where the science is going to tell you to move towards the nano. That’s where the biggest benefit is.

But if we’re going to do that, the scientists of today and tomorrow are going to need new tools — tools just like the ones I described. And they will need chemistry.

That’s the point. The beauty of science is that once you develop these new tools, they’re out there. They’re out there forever, and anyone anywhere can pick them up and use them, and help to deliver on the promise of nanotechnology. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.

 

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