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This week's announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics generated considerable interest for CNS researcher and UC Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray. For the past two years, McCray and his colleagues Timothy Lenoir (Duke University) and Cyrus Mody (Rice University) have studied the history of nanoelectronics. The recent news from Stockholm helped demonstrate the relevance of their work for understanding the societal impact of nanotechnologies.
"It is very exciting," McCray said, "that the Swedish Academy cited this year's physics prize as one of the first major applications of nanotechnology. This should remind people that everyday objects we use already incorporate sophisticated nanoscale devices."
On October 8, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2007 Nobel to Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg for their discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR). GMR is the process whereby a small magnetic field can trigger a large change in electrical resistance. This discovery is at the heart of modern hard drive technology, and it has stimulated the manufacture of a new generation of electronics. The Nobel citation also noted that Fert and Grünberg's work heralded the advent of new and potentially more powerful forms of memory storage using "spintronics" in which information is stored and processed by manipulating the spins of electrons.
For over two years, McCray and his colleagues have documented the emergence of spintronics research. Discovery of the GMR phenomena, according to McCray, marked the beginning of the spintronics field. "Just as it is impossible to imagine life today without the transistor," said McCray, "spintronics and many other fields in nanotechnology are hard to predict, but they may have a major impact on our society and economy. The GMR phenomenon helped enable a major change in how we interact with technology and the possibilities afforded by it."
Most of the electronics industry is based on manipulating the charges of electrons moving through circuits. But the spin of electrons might also be exploited to gain new control over data storage and processing. Spintronics, an area of physics research in which UCSB is especially strong, is the general name for this branch of electronics. One area of nano-research that appears most exciting to scientists, commercial firms, and government patrons is the development of nanoelectronics which replace or complement traditional transistor technologies, explained McCray. "The potential economic and social effects of this transformation may be profound, and now the connection of a Nobel Prize to it might really increase its visibility for the public," McCray said.
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.
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.
For more information, please click here
W. Patrick McCray
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