Sunday, July 12, 2015

Nano "Grand Challenges" for the next decade

Last month the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a call for suggestions for "nanotechnology-inspired grand challenges".  The term "grand challenge" is popular, both within the federal agencies and among science/technology coordinating and policy-making groups.  When done well, a list of grand challenges can cleanly, clearly articulate big, overarching goals that a community has identified as aspirational milestones toward which to strive.  When done poorly, a list of grand challenges can read like naive fantasy, with the added issue that pointing this out can lead to being labeled "negative" or "lacking in vision".  To make up a poor example: "In the next ten years we should develop a computing device smaller than a grain of rice, yet more powerful than an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer, able to operate based on power acquired from the ambient environment, and costing less than $5 to manufacture."    Yeah, not too realistic.

It's worth thinking hard about these, though, and trying to contribute good ones.  The deadline for this call is this coming Thursday, so get yours in while you can.  I put one in that I will discuss later in the week.


Anonymous said...

They already have a list and it is naive Drexler-like fantasy

By 2025, the nanotechnology R&D community is challenged to achieve the following:

Increase the five-year survival rates by 50% for the most difficult to treat cancers.
Create devices no bigger than a grain of rice that can sense, compute, and communicate without wires or maintenance for 10 years, enabling an “internet of things” revolution.
Create computer chips that are 100 times faster yet consume less power.
Manufacture atomically-precise materials with fifty times the strength of aluminum at half the weight and the same cost.
Reduce the cost of turning sea water into drinkable water by a factor of four.
Determine the environmental, health, and safety characteristics of a nanomaterial in a month.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon., yeah, as you can probably tell from the tone of my post, I think this list has some stuff that crosses from aspirational to unrealistic.

Anthony D said...

I would like to see a few things that I believe research in nanotechnology will fruit:
1. I would like to improve our ability to image nano structures, and facilitate the spread of imaging technology. From my current understanding, we are able to image very small structures using X-Rays with very small wavelengths, but run into issues when trying to image structures in less than optimal conditions (Can possibly be applied to cellular imaging in MRIs?).
2. I would like to see improvements in our ability to use top-down manufacturing for semiconductors. I understand photolithography to be our "limiting reagent" in creating nano semiconductors, and I would like to see us overcome our current limitations and be able to etch what we desire to as small as we can desire.
3. I would like Single Walled Carbon Nanotubes to continue to fall in price to the point where they can be practically applied to electronics.
4. Create a cheap, effective way to filter water, that is faster than current methods, that can be applied massively to make any drinking source drinkable. This will be very important to the growth of poor nations by drastically cheapening the cost of water, and can be important in places which are running short on drinkable water, such as California.

Anonymous said...

Something to comment on:

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon - thanks for pointing out that article. While some "Leadership" (with a capital L) stuff is vapid, there is no question that managing people is something for which faculty are almost never trained. At all. We are all somehow expected to learn personnel management on the fly, along with a bunch of other skills that are important for our jobs but not formally included in a doctoral education. Some training along those lines, even just reading case study examples like the one at the very beginning of that article, would be consciousness-raising for many.

Anonymous said...

saying something along the lines of:
"I want X to be N times cheaper and M times smaller"
is NOT a grand challenge. As Doug points out, many of these are wishful thinking and anyone can come up with 50 of those per minute.
How about: "World Piece. No Cancer. Everyone lives forever. Get infinite energy from vacuum."

The grand challenges have to be somewhat grounded in reality. Saying "I want my fridge to be the size of grain of rice and to store 100 times what my fridge stores now" is not a good grand challenge.

There has to be some realistic pathway to achieving it.

Finally, most grand challenges should not be "we want to improve figure of merit X by factor Y". These are terrible grand challenges.

19th century grand challenge for transportation: We want to breed horses that can carry 3 times more and eat 5 times less.
Mid-20th century grand challenges for computing: We want computers with 100 times more vacuum tubes.
Grand challenge for media recording: We want tape recorders that could play 500-minute tapes.

Most important changes are not incremental. They are revolutionary, often unexpected and come from deeper understanding of some basics, not improved engineering or manufacturing of existing gadgets.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 10:12. Most "grand challenges" (a term I think that was borrowed from the besac reports of DOE) deal not with quantitative goals, but with "achieve control" within some boundary conditions. Quantitative goals are almost always by definition incremental.

Norman Brown said...

Realistic goals are one thing; but it's those grand challenges that push the community to greater heights. While they may not be achieved within the timeframe established; progress will still be made.

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