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August 26th, 2007
Nanoelectromechanical systems start to take shape
In his famous 1959 speech "Plenty of Room at the Bottom", Richard Feynman offered a prize of $1000 "to the first guy who makes an operating electric motor - a rotating electric motor which can be controlled from the outside and, not counting the lead-in wires, is only 1/64 inch cube." Feynman had hoped his reward would stimulate some new fabrication technology but he was quite consternated when one year later, Bill McLellan, using amateur radio skills, built the motor with his hands using tweezers and a microscope (and many, many hours of fiddling around). McLellan's 2000 rpm motor weighed 250 micrograms and consisted of 13 parts. In the almost 50 years since, not only has the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) caught up with Feynman's bet and achieved commercial production capabilities of motors many times smaller than McLellan's, but researchers have begun exploring another level of miniaturization - nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS). Efficient actuation, the creation of mechanical motion by converting various forms of energy to rotating or linear mechanical energy, is an important - and today still frustrating - issue in designing NEMS. Research on building functional nanoscale electromechanical systems is well underway, as just demonstrated with another achievement by scientists at Caltech - the place where Feynman gave his speech and McLellan's motor still is on display.
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