Thinking small 

Nanotech guru Yuval Avniel's designer future

After a few trips down the slopes at Snowbowl, a man sits over a beer and a laptop at the Last Run Inn. His name is Dr. Yuval Avniel, and his Missoula-based MicroPowder Solutions works in nanotechnology, a field that many scientists, including Avniel himself, believe will lead to nothing short of a second industrial revolution.

Nanotechnology is the science of designing matter at the molecular level (a typical nano-dimensional material is about 20 nanometers wide; in comparison, a human hair is 100,000 nanometers wide).

“We’re at the stage where we can design these [molecular structures] and fit them together like Legos,” Avniel says.

Already, similar techniques are used to broaden the spectrum of paint pigments, as well as to block UV rays in sunblock and high-end cosmetics, yet these applications are nothing compared to what Avniel forsees coming next.

“I’m now working on designing a nanomolecule that attaches to a petroleum molecule that makes it combust easier so you get more energy and less CO emissions,” Avneil says. “You’d have less maintenance on your engine from deposits, it’s more efficient and greener—the sky’s the limit with this stuff.”

To design a nano-structure, Avniel must create a system wherein certain molecules will be attracted to certain electric charges. Then, he must stretch the molecule until it breaks. Finally, the system must be designed so that when the molecule breaks, the pieces drift off to attach to other target molecules.

This past fall, Avniel, a former NASA “Inventor of the Year,” was awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Aside from his petroleum project, he is working with scientists at MSU-Bozeman to build “protein scaffolding” which would allow molecular engineers to stack protein building blocks and then remove acids, creating molecular “holes” to act as a “genetic sieve.”

This process could have major implications for the world of medicine, says Nick Zelver, technology transfer officer at MSU-Bozeman.

“What we’re doing now is proof of concept,” Zelver says. “We’re looking at how this can be applied and proving that it can be economically viable. To commercialize a component of this in Montana is definitely doable.”

Avniel agrees.

“Right now, if nanotechnology is going to succeed, it’s going to have to have commercial value,” he says, because that’s where future funding will come from.

Avniel’s work certainly seems to have commercial applications. He holds patents on technologies that may someday help combat disease by screening out bad genes, create computer displays that will eliminate radiation effects on the human eye, create a switch-operated sterilization catalyst for use in hospital surgery rooms or kitchens (a similar technology is already in effect in solar-powered, self-window-cleaning skyscrapers), make CDs more scratch-resistant, and create clothing that produces electricity through movement to keep the wearer warm. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

“Everywhere I look, I see materials. Construction, energy, food, medicine—for all of that, we’ll have the ability to design for a specific end.”

Nanotechnology offers a “designer world,” and it has drawn the attention of Ferro Electronics, the largest electronics distributor in the U.S., which is working with Avniel to develop his patents.

“I predict this is going to be as big as the Industrial Revolution,” he says.

The U.S. government appears on board. President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act into law in December, and Avniel thinks he has a good shot at seeing more government funding down the road; the MSU-Bozeman program is funded via government grants.

As with any powerful tool, however, nanotechnology has a possible downside.

Mike Treder, executive director of Brooklyn, New York’s Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), says “We’re just trying to get people to start talking about the questions that need to be asked.”

And while his organization is not against nanotech per se, Treder is concerned about possible impacts.

“It could upset the balance of world power militarily and economically if small nations are able to quickly, secretly upgrade their militaries without any easy verification like you have with nuclear arms,” Treder says, noting that nanotechnology offers the possibility of weapons of mass destruction being produced in days or weeks, rather than months or years.

CRN’s website is more bleak: “Some of the dangers [of nanotechnology]…may threaten the continued existence of humankind,” it reads, announcing that one suitcase filled with nanotech devices could theoretically deploy enough botulism toxin to kill every human being on Earth.

“There’s a lot of fear over what could happen if this fell into the wrong hands, so we’re proposing technical restrictions that would prevent dangerous products,” Treder says. “That would require some international administration.”

“When it comes to where we are in practice, we’re a long way from that sci-fi stuff,” says Avniel.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, that’s science fiction,’ so we have to find that line between being seen as overly alarmist and also responding to what we see as the real urgency of the situation,” Treder counters.

Avniel says his work isn’t geared toward destructive ends, though he admits he may not have as much control over his research’s final applications as he’d like.

“I choose not to work in munitions. Will it be applied there? Possibly. I can’t predict the future.”

Ultimately, nanotechnology’s use will depend on the human beings in control of the technology. Nanotechnology may alter much, but probably not free will. In the meantime, Avniel contines his research from the Fifth Street home where he lives with his son—and like a young boy, his eyes light up at the possibilities.

“This is going to be big. It’s going to grow, and my intention is to bring like-minded individuals to Missoula because I’ll need help,” he says. “This is [a] hi-tech play group. What could be cooler?”

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