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Tiny science makes a big impact for more than nuclear security

There’s plenty of room at the bottom," said Richard P. Feynman in 1959 to the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology. He was describing a new frontier in which scientists would manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. We now refer to these studies as nanoscience and nanotechnology, conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers (a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter).

Feynman emphasized how much could be learned about genetic disease, biology, energy, and chemistry if scientists could only "look at the thing!" at tinier scales. He said that "atoms on a small scale behave like nothing on a large scale," enabling unique solutions to scientific problems. Today, NNSA’s national laboratories are applying these tiny sciences "to do all kinds of marvelous things—all on a very small scale" as Feynman predicted more than a half-century ago.

He said scientists could answer "the most central and fundamental problems of biology today" if they could but see the structures that caused genetic function. Today, imaging technologies at NNSA’s laboratories, created to better understand nuclear reactions at the atomic level, have provided clearer views of tiny biology. NNSA scientists using specialized spectrometry saw that vibrations of nanoparticles determined how they would interact with living cells. Coating chemotherapy drugs in cancer-seeking, bio-friendly nanoparticles makes them safer for healthy cells yet deadly for cancer.

Feynman postulated that you could reduce a beam of light down to just a few photons, and that the light would have different properties and intensities at such a small scale. Following that concept, NNSA researchers employed nanotechnology to create bright, inexpensive materials for flat-panel displays.

He predicted that "small machines might be permanently incorporated in the body to assist some inadequately functioning organ," a concept NNSA’s laboratories have carried to reality in medical applications on the nanoscale.

"What would the properties of materials be if we could really arrange the atoms the way we want them?" Feynman asked.

Today, NNSA’s labs do just that, applying tiny technology to design materials that are extremely safe, reliable, and resistant to external factors—necessary characteristics for nuclear weapon component materials. Micro science also helps create very specialized sensors and electronics that help verify the nation’s stockpile without underground nuclear explosive testing. Nanoparticles can be used to strengthen composites for a variety of uses, to include making nuclear weapons safer and more secure, creating next-generation fuel cells and batteries, advancing 3D-printing, and bioelectronics.

While Feynman predicted a wide variety of itty-bitty ingenuity in the future, NNSA’s labs have far exceeded his forecasts.

Since nanoparticles are showing up in a variety of commercial, industrial, and biomedical applications, a new field of study has been developed: nanotoxicology, the study of whether the tiny particles are safe for humans. Both Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories have conducted studies to test this.

Feynman said data from 120,000 books could one day be stored on something the size of a library card, and he predicted quantum computing. Surpassing his expectations, NNSA researchers have developed the capability to communicate mass digital data securely via streams of laser pulses through nanotubes.

In conservation, scientists have used nanotubes more than 50,000 times thinner than a human hair to cheaply and quickly remove salt from water and pollution from the air. NNSA scientists also found bacteria that help clean the ocean on nanoscale by virtually "bagging" and immobilizing tiny packets of ocean litter.

At the end of his acclaimed presentation, Feynman challenged his colleagues to build an operating electric motor that would be smaller than 1/64 of an inch cube. NNSA’s labs beat that challenge in recent research, employing biological motors smaller than 60 nanometers, or about 2 millionths of an inch, to build neural networks out of tiny manmade materials.

NNSA’s labs have surpassed Feynman’s future vision in other ways, as well. Today, nanoparticle technology makes very tiny pieces of material called quantum dots that can be used for solar panels, luminescent products, and security inks.

See Feynman’s re-telling of his 1959 lecture 25 years later, and learn more about the nanoscale in this video.

Physicist Richard Feynman, the father of nanotechnology.