Sir Fraser Stoddart Nanotechnology Lecture

Sir Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University delivered a lecture on “Chemistry and Molecular Nanotechnology in Tomorrow’s World,” as the Plenary Lecture of the Kent State University Chemistry Department Honor’s Week.  I attended the lecture, because I have a healthy interest in the world of the very small and its utopic possibilities lauded by scientists and engineers, as well as Science Fiction authors.

Dr. Stoddart’s presentation was rich with detail and heavy with science.  My B.S. from Georgia Tech facilitated my following along with the molecular mechanical operations enabled by reduction and oxidation, as well as the nano-switches flipping between open/ground states and closed/metastable states.  However, I was clearly not the audience for this talk.  The audience was full of real chemists and chemistry students who fully engage the technical aspects of the presentation that were lost on me.  That being said, I did come away from the talk with a better understanding of the particular nanotechnologies Dr. Stoddart described, and I particularly enjoyed the personal stories and anecdotes he shared with the audience.

He began his presentation with images from his youth on a tenant farm outside Edinburgh.  Growing up, he enjoyed working on machines, but it’s fascinating that his household didn’t receive electricity until he was seventeen (around 1955).

His interest in nanotechnology and molecular machines comes from three non-scientific sources, which include:  jigsaw puzzles (NB:  pieces), crossword puzzles (NB:  words and phrases), and Meccano/Erector sets (NB:  building complex models from simple pieces).  Obviously, Dr. Stoddart has a thing for solving puzzles with finite building blocks, and he further illustrated this through his technical, yet approachable, presentation on recent developments and future potential of nanotechnology and molecular “building blocks.”

His presentation had a “future” component that touched on two nanotechnology applications.  One being nano-mechanical memory storage, in which Intel and HP are both very interested.  Using molecular switch tunnel junctions (MSTJ), computer memory can be advanced beyond the DRAM specs of 2020.  This means that MSTJ based memory will occupy a smaller space, have a greater memory density, use less power, and have unique physical properties (Stoddart didn’t elaborate on this, but I’m guessing better thermal dissipation or some other aspect that’s problematic for DRAM memory and increasing memory access speeds).    An interesting fact that he gave the audience about memory density is that 10^12 bits of memory can be stored in a space the size of a U.S. First Class stamp!

The other interesting future nanotechnology incorporates nanovalves to release targeted medicines within cells.  He, and three of his colleagues, started a company, Nanopacific Holdings, to pursue this technology.  He let the audience know that this is something close to his heart, because it has the potential in the treatment of cancer, which claimed his wife after a protracted illness.

Dr. Stoddart ended his presentation with the story of his knighting ceremony with Queen Elizabeth.  As he was kneeling in front of the Queen, the Lord Chamberlain introduced him to the Queen as, “Sir Fraser Stoddart is honored for his achievements in chemistry and nanotology.”  Stoddart choose not to correct this misstatement, but the Queen broached the subject after knighting him.  She leaned over and asked, “He got that wrong didn’t he–It should be nanotechnology, shouldn’t it?”  This lead to a short conversation between Stoddart and, as he calls her, the “Nano Queen.”  Apparently, she knows a bit about nanotechnology!

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture, and I’m eager to read up on some of the things that I included in my notes of the event.  I didn’t have a chance to ask (okay, the technical questions during the Q&A made me reconsider asking this) him he enjoys SF, or if SF had any part in his development as a scientist.  I’ll have to track down his email address and ask!