August 24, 2004 1:23 PM PDT

Nanotech will tap nature's potential, investor says

Humans can learn a lot from animals, said venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, particularly the microscopic life forms living in thermal vents.

Speaking at the Hot Chips conference at Stanford University, Jurvetson asserted that nanotechnology--the ability to make products on the molecular level--will usher in the next great wave of innovation despite the recent cancellation of Nanosys' high-profile initial public offering. That revolution will occur, in part, because scientists will be able to harness or imitate the power of nature.

Researchers at NASA Ames laboratories, for instance, have discovered a virus that lives inside hot springs that exudes a "bizarre heat-shock protein," he said. When extracted, boiled and dried, a sheet of these proteins will leave a small array of metal posts. Conceivably, this material could be used by semiconductor makers.

Jurvetson acknowledged that any commercial implementation of the discovery by NASA is remote, but it underscores how scientists from different disciplines are opening up new avenues of discovery in nature that could result in commercially exploitable technology.

In another example, he pointed out that ZettaCore, a company that his firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson has invested in, has developed a type of memory that stores data through a designer molecule rather than transistors and memory cells. The molecule, he noted, resembles chlorophyll. The company is currently talking with established Silicon Valley companies about manufacturing partnerships. Cambrios, a Palo Alto, Calif., company, is developing proteins from viruses that, when combined with metals, could be used to assemble electronic components.

Self-replication will be important in the coming nanotech revolution for a number of reasons. For one thing, it will begin to curb escalating manufacturing costs, a problem affecting the bottom lines of chipmakers and others. The efficiency of nature can be demonstrated in a number of ways, he noted. The human genome only takes 60MB of data, far less than Microsoft Office.

Two, molecules are really tough to manipulate on an individual level. The molecules in a single drop of water outnumber all of the transistors ever produced, he said.

Working on the nano level will also open the door to new discoveries in the physical sciences because materials exhibit different properties. Gold, for example, is no longer gold at the molecular level. Standard aluminum, when ground into nano particles, spontaneously explodes in air.

"The assumptions of how materials behave goes through this no man's land," he said.

To date, investors have not warmed up to nanotech. Nanosys, a leading company in the field, cancelled its IPO earlier in the month. Still, Jurvetson asserted that the failed IPO shouldn't be considered a reflection of the nanotechnology potential.

"Lindows pulled its IPO," he observed. "Does that mean the future is over for desktop Linux?"

 

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