Overall Objectives
Research Program
Application Domains
New Software and Platforms
New Results
Partnerships and Cooperations
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Section: Research Program

The need for practical design of nanosystems

Computing has long been an essential tool of engineering. During the twentieth century, the development of macroscopic engineering has been largely stimulated by progress in numerical design and prototyping. Cars, planes, boats, and many other manufactured objects are nowadays, for the most part, designed and tested on computers. Digital prototypes have progressively replaced actual ones, and effective computer-aided engineering tools (e.g., CATIA, SolidWorks, T-FLEX CAD, Alibre Design, TopSolid, etc.) have helped cut costs and reduce production cycles of macroscopic systems [66].

The twenty-first century is most likely to see a similar development at the atomic scale. Indeed, the recent years have seen tremendous progress in nanotechnology. The magazine Science, for example, recently featured a paper demonstrating an example of DNA nanotechnology, where DNA strands are stacked together through programmable self-assembly [35]. In February 2007, the cover of Nature Nanotechnology showed a “nano-wheel” composed of a few atoms only. Several nanosystems have already been demonstrated, including a de-novo computationally designed protein interface [37], a wheelbarrow molecule [44], a nano-car [70], a Morse molecule [18], etc. Typically, these designs are optimized using semi-empirical quantum mechanics calculations, such as the semi-empirical ASED+ calculation technique [19].

While impressive, these are but two examples of the nanoscience revolution already impacting numerous fields, including electronics and semiconductors [53], textiles [52], [40], energy [55], food [29], drug delivery [39], [72], chemicals [41], materials [30], the automotive industry [16], aerospace and defense [38], medical devices and therapeutics [33], medical diagnostics [73], etc. According to some estimates, the world market for nanotechnology-related products and services will reach one trillion dollars by 2015 [65]. Nano-engineering groups are multiplying throughout the world, both in academia and in the industry: in the USA, the MIT has a “NanoEngineering” research group, Sandia National Laboratories created a “National Institute for Nano Engineering”, to name a few; China founded a “National Center for Nano Engineering” in 2003, etc. Europe is also a significant force in public funding of nanoscience and nanotechnology and, in Europe, Grenoble and the Rhone-Alpes area gather numerous institutions and organizations related to nanoscience.

Of course, not all small systems that currently fall under the label “nano” have mechanical, electronic, optical properties similar to the examples given above. Furthermore, current construction capabilities lack behind some of the theoretical designs which have been proposed, such as the planetary gear designed by Eric Drexler at Nanorex. However, the trend is clearly for adding more and more functionality to nanosystems. While designing nanosystems is still very much an art mostly performed by physicists, chemists and biologists in labs throughout the world, there is absolutely no doubt that fundamental engineering practices will progressively emerge, and that these practices will be turned into quantitative rules and methods. Similar to what has happened with macroscopic engineering, powerful and generic software will then be employed to engineer complex nanosystems.