Driven by a federal executive order with an inspiring budget, the visionary challenge put forth by Richard Feynman in his well known 1959 presentation Plenty of Room at the Bottom is now on its way to becoming reality. Feynman’s prediction of an age of nanoscience served as a lightening rod for innovative thinking about “what might be,” and set the pace for the evolution of nanotechnology. Today, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is pushing the pervasive application of nanoscience to technological advancements in health improvement, information technology, agricultural advancement, materials and energy conservation, and environmental sustainability.

Nanoscience is the study of materials manipulation at the molecular scale—on the order of a few hundred angstroms—less than one-thousandth the width of a human hair. The extraordinary feature of nanoscience is that it allows for the tailoring and combining of the physical, biological, and engineering properties of matter at a common level of control.

Critical to progress in nanosciences have been the stunning new achievements in fabrication, processing and tool development in the last several decades, driven in large part by the microelectronics revolution. These developments today allow for molecular-level tailoring of materials not heretofore explorable except through naturally occurring atomic processes

The NNI, with a mission to promote basic and applied research and educational initiatives in nanoscience and technology, budgeted $422 million in 2001 and $604 million in 2002 across several federal agencies. The President’s budget request for 2003 is $710 million. With NNI funding, nanoscience knowledge generation and engineering concepts are emerging across a broad spectrum of science and engineering disciplines. Examples include information technology, nanoelectromechanical components, interactive and smart textiles, medical sensors and probes, and super-efficient engines. It comes as no surprise that one of the new application areas included in the President’s 2003 request is chemical-biological-radioactive-explosive detection and protection.

NC State’s faculty and equipment resources in nanotechnology stack up against those of the top universities in the country. Increased federal support for nanotechnology research at NC State is producing interdisciplinary results cutting across engineering, physics, chemistry and biology—all strengths on our campus. The NNI presents a tremendous opportunity for NC State—where multi- and interdisciplinary university-industry partnerships are the coin of the realm— to be a leader in the emerging field of nanoscience and technology, now termed “the next industrial revolution.”

Dr. Iafrate served 24 years in the U.S. Army Electronics Technology and Device Laboratory and eight years as the director of the U.S. Army Research Office. He recently served on a National Academy of Science team to review the progress of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.