Issues and obstacles of nanotechnology

professor in glasses head shot
Akhlesh Lakhtakia

"How small is nano?" Akhlesh Lakhtakia asked students, faculty, and community members during the final session of the fall season of Research Unplugged. "Divide an inch into 25 pieces," he said. "Then divide each piece into one million pieces. Each of those pieces is one nanometer."

According to Lakhtakia, distinguished professor of engineering science and mechanics, nanotechnology is defined as any technology with features of nanometer scale, such as thin films, carbon nanotubes, quantumdots, and fine particles. He said it is generally agreed that the nanometer scale is any width between 0.2 and 100 nanometer (nm).

What are the industrial prospects of technology at this scale? "As of today," Lakhtakia says, "absolutely zero. It is enormously expensive to manipulate matter precisely at the nano scale," he explained. "And in order to make a desirable product, you have to have reproducability. We don't have that yet." As a result, he said, "In a lab we can do all kinds of things; in a factory, no—as of now."

Lakhtakia also pointed out that nanotechnology has developed at a crucial stage of history. "We have the extraordinary convergence of three new technologies: biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology," he said. "They help one another, they feed one another, and the prospects they raise are either extremely pleasant to contemplate —anything is possible!—or too terrifying to contemplate." This convergence, he suggested, "will divide us—rich from poor, those who control these technologies from those who don't, those who benefit from those who don't. It is vital that the public consider the social implications of the enormous power that could be realized."

Lakhtakia has devoted his career to investigating research areas that no one else has pursued, or as he puts it, "operating at the edge of understanding." His work focuses on the interaction of electromagnetic fields with complex materials. In those interactions, he explains, "unusual things can happen."

Lakhtakia's many books include Sculptured Thin Films: Nanoengineered Morphology and Optics (forthcoming) with R. Messier, Nanometer Structures: Theory, Modeling, and Simulation (2004), and Introduction to Complex Mediums for Optics and Electromagnetics (2003).

Lakhtakia teaches several courses at Penn State, including Laser Optics Fundamentals (ESC 598G), Multidisciplinary Informal Engineering Education Seminar (ESC 597A), and Green Engineering (ESC 124).

Akhlesh Lakhtakia, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics in the College of Engineering, 212 Earth and Engineering Sciences Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4319; axl4@psu.edu. Jeria Quesenberry, jquesenberry@ist.psu.edu, is a Ph.D. candidate in the school of Information Sciences and Technology. She is a member of the Research Unplugged committee.

Last Updated October 27, 2004