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Article in Nature Nanotechnology argues Molecular Beam Epitaxy
deserves higher recognition in nanotech's history
UC Santa Barbara professor of history W. Patrick McCray takes a close look at the evolution of nanotechnology in the May issue of Nature Nanotechnology. McCray, a member of UCSB's Center for Nanotechnology in Society, argues that the role of the Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) tool has played far more of a central role in the development and growth of nanoscience than history has given credit.
McCray points out that the lessons learned from MBE's history can benefit policy makers who are considering nanotechnology's risks and benefits. "When government investment in nanotechnology took off in the US and elsewhere around the turn of the century, new materials and devices for electronics featured prominently," McCray notes. "In recent years, however, attention has shifted to health and safety concerns, and worries about the social and economic impacts of nanotechnology. Efforts to anticipate the concerns of tomorrow would benefit from a better understanding of the past, including these hidden histories of nanotechnology."
Although the history of nanotechnology is widely regarded as originating with Richard Feynman's 1959 talk, fancifully titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," McCray reminds us that the influence of Feynman's lecture has been overstated. Moreover, while attention is often given to the development of scanning and atomic forces microscopes in the 1980s, nanofabrication techniques such as MBE predate them.
MBE allows scientists to create nanostructures for research and commercial applications. Its origins go back more than four decades to the needs of solid-state physicists and semiconductor makers to fabricate new materials and devices. Especially important, McCray notes, were contributions by scientists at Bell Labs and IBM in the 1970s. Initially, the MBE community was small and early practitioners built their complex and expensive machines by hand. By the 1980s, commercial firms were producing MBE devices which helped this nascent nanotech community to expand. Today, MBE is a fully refined research tool for nanoscience. Outside of the lab, MBE creates semiconductor structures for lasers used in hundreds of millions of CD and DVD players.
"MBE success as a research tool and as a commercial process that provides the basis for billions of dollars of commerce seems to be partly responsible for its relative invisibility in the history of nanotechnology," McCray writes in Nature Nanotechnology. "MBE originated decades ago at prestigious corporate laboratories that explored the basic science behind the microelectronic devices upon which their business rested. Over time, it matured to become a common yet flexible tool that was essential for research in many areas of nanoscience and technology."
McCray, who was originally trained as a materials scientist, now examines the history of contemporary science and technology of the sciences. McCray received his PhD from the University of Arizona in 1996.
MBE allows scientists to fabricate nanostructures by vaporizing materials and releasing the atoms or molecules back into a beam and into a single layer. Scientists can therefore build nanostructures with highly controlled compositions, one atomic layer at a time.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials on a very small scale. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. By comparison, DNA is two nanometers wide, a red blood cell is 10,000 nanometers wide, and a single strand of hair is 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnology holds great potential in virtually every sector of the economy, including electronics, medicine, and energy.
About UC Santa Barbara
The mission of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara is to serve as a national research and education center, a network hub among researchers and educators concerned with nanotechnologies’ societal impacts, and a resource base for studying these impacts in the U.S. and abroad.
The CNS carries out innovative and interdisciplinary research in three key areas:
· the historical context of nanotechnologies;
· the institutional and industrial processes of technological innovation of nanotechnologies along with their global diffusion and comparative impacts; and
· the social risk perception and response to different applications of nanotechnologies.
The CNS is funded by an award from the National Science Foundation.
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