Attack of the Nanobots!

What Peter Benchley did for the "buy a shark, they make good pets" industry, Michael Crichton has done for the science of nanotechnology.

In his book Prey, he describes the catastrophic potential of nano-gone-haywire where self-assembled nanobots clean an area like a horde of locusts, eventually eating each other and creating a gray goo that covers the entire planet. It might have been fiction, but it was enough for the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, to call upon scientists to approach nano with caution. So let's put things into Foolish perspective.

The idea of nanobots, or self-assembling machines, is not fiction, but it is as yet an unproven idea. Eric Drexler, the man who coined the term nanotechnology, writes with passion and science on his side in first describing the concepts of these amazing machines. Machines able to whiz around your body at will, repairing cells before you even develop an ache, let alone a disease. Machines able to replicate themselves ad infinitum and man controlling their design -- after producing enough toasters, they move on to making kettles or spaceships or whatever else. All of that is possible... probably.

In the real world of dollars spent on academic research resulting in nano commercial applications, the term nanotechnology means something entirely different.

The real buzz of nanotechnology hit the mainstream when President Bush signed off on an unprecedented funding of $3.7 billion to be allocated to nanotechnology research over the next four years. Standing next to him that day was Dr. Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry and discoverer of buckyballs, a carbon nanotube fullerene.

He is also the founder of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. and was the first to publicly attack Drexler's claims with his assertion that basic chemistry would not allow the ability to create the nano exotica proposed by Drexler. As a Nobel Prize winner in the discipline, naturally people listened.

Even more important was the specific exclusion in the research budget of any money being spent on molecular manufacturing, the discipline that would produce, possibly, the by-now-infamous nanobots.

Further, a recent report by the U.K.'s government-sponsored scientific community into nanotechnology, presumably after having listened to their future king, specifically ignored the impact of molecular manufacturing. In other words, the world envisioned by Drexler when he spoke of nanotechnology may have a life, but not as we know it, and definitely not in the here and now.

That is why, for example, Zyvex Corp. which proclaimed itself "the first molecular nanotechnology company" when it was working to develop the first molecular assembler, now positions itself as a nanotool maker and supplier. The company hired a commercial CEO and began to market the unique nanotools it was "forced" to create in its search for Drexler's ideal. Zyvex was working at a level no one had before -- there were no tools to use, so it had to invent them. In other words, it is and will continue to be commercial reality powering the development of the technology.

That is why we constantly refer Foolish readers to evolutionary nanotechnology versus revolutionary nanotechnology. That is why we have in the past attempted to explain the "bottom-up" revolution versus the "top-down" approach in manufacturing. It is a message that needs to be repeated because even though mainstream confusion and ignorance can be fun, it's not a good investing strategy.

Although Eric Drexler has sadly been sidelined in his vision of nanotechnology, there are compelling reasons why this is a necessary evolution of the science. To get where Drexler wants us to be requires lots of research, and that means lots of government and private money.

As the evolutionary science continues, it's important to present not only its potential problems but also its actual benefits. If opponents succeed, then government money will be scared away and near-term commercial breakthroughs canceled or postponed as a result.

So when we speak of Nano-Tex in your pants or organic light-emitting diodes in your television, you have nothing to fear. They aren't going to eat your trousers, your legs, or your children innocently sitting in front of the TV.

Fearing the unknown
There has been a host of mainstream media jumping on the gray goo bandwagon, and there is naturally an inherent danger with any new science. There is always a fear that it will create more problems than we can handle.

Nanoparticles that can cross the traditionally impervious blood-brain barrier will have little difficulty in crossing far easier barriers within the human body with potentially life-threatening results if it is uncontrolled. What about nanodust randomly roaming the atmosphere in an age were asthma is at epidemic proportions? These and other well-documented "problems" may indeed pose serious issues as we go down the nano road.

However, from an investing perspective, the products and processes we can invest in now are very much extensions of existing science, albeit chemistry, physics, or engineering. That is not likely to change any time soon. Don't let maniacal nanobots scare you away from potentially lucrative nano investments.

That is why we have nothing to fear from the technology being produced in the nanobiotech sector from companies such as Flamel Technologies (Nasdaq: FLML  ) with Medusa, American Pharmaceutical Partners (Nasdaq: APPX  ) with Abraxane, Advanced Magnetics (AMEX: AVM  ) with Combidex, and others with their patented nanobio developments.

Or in the nanomaterials sector from companies such as Nanophase Technologies (Nasdaq: NANX  ) with its nanooxides or Headwaters (Nasdaq: HDWR  ) and its subsidiary Hydrocarbon Technologies with its nanopowders. Nor in the nanoelectronics sector from companies such as Kopin Corp. (Nasdaq: KOPN  ) with nanopockets or Silicon Storage Technology (Nasdaq: SSTI  ) . And it is definitely nothing to fear in the nanotools sector with companies such as Veeco and FEI Co. After all, they are simply making tools to be able to see the products.

Nor is it a reason for us to discount them or the hundreds of currently private nano companies as potential picks in David Gardner's new Motley Fool Rule Breakers service.

Ultimately, Smalley may be proven right and basic chemistry will show it is impossible to create machines so small there is no room for the machines to be manipulated by even tinier machines. That would directly contradict Dr. Richard Feynman's groundbreaking speech titled "There is plenty of room at the bottom." It has been 45 years since that speech was made, igniting the science that became known as nanotechnology; perhaps it will be another 45 years before we come to know for sure who is right.

Meanwhile, Eric Drexler, having accepted his original vision of nanotechnology has been "hijacked," continues to work at his dream, only now he calls it zettatechnology, and that's a whole new, even smaller ball of wax.

If you're looking for the next growth company in groundbreaking industries like nanotech, then try our ultimate growth service, Motley Fool Rule Breakers.

Do you have high hopes for the nanotechnology sector? Share your views with Carl (TMFBreakerCarl) and John (TMFBreakerJohn) in the Nanotechnology discussion board.

Carl Wherrett owns shares of Nanophase and Flamel. John Yelovich owns Flamel. You can reach them both by email.The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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