Berkeley Lab Research Review

othing could be more fundamental than a Lego, the plastic building block familiar to children around the world. And yet anyone who has ever walked through an FAO Schwarz store knows that with the right combination of Lego blocks, you can build some amazingly complex and sophisticated things-from motorized miniature cars and trucks, to rockets and launchers, to Star Wars battle droids and other mechanized robot toys.


In the coming age of nanotechnology, scientists and engineers will also be building some amazingly complex and sophisticated things, things like MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems), intelligent machines too tiny to be seen with the naked eye but capable of performing tasks that read like science fiction. For example, medical MEMS could patrol the human bloodstream, purging clogged arteries of cholesterol or supporting the immune system in its fight against "foreign" invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Air-borne and water-borne MEMS could monitor and remove pollutants, telecom MEMS might beam communications signals directly into our eyes and ears from environments too hostile or remote for human access. MEMS can also be networked. And they are just one example of the things that are to come. Nanoenthusiasts also envision chemical input/output systems, mechano-chemical transducers, light-driven catalysts, and even quantum computers."

To achieve this world of tomorrow, however, scientists and engineers will need the right combination of building blocks. Designing, synthesizing and characterizing new types of nano-building blocks will be a major mission for materials scientists. These building blocks will come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and will be fashioned from inorganic or "hard" matter, organic or "soft" matter, and sometimes from a mixture of both. Time will tell what forms these building blocks may eventually take, but among the many promising shapes Berkeley Lab researchers are initially working with three basic varieties- crystals, tubes, and a tree-like, heavily-branched class of polymers called "dendrimers."

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