James Van Ehr is the founder and chairman of Zyvex Performance Materials, Zyvex Instruments, Zyvex Labs and Zyvex Asia. He founded the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative and the Feynman Grand Prize in nanotechnology and his $3.5 million grant established at the University of Texas at Dallas NanoTech Institute. He has also endowed the James Van Ehr Distinguished Chair of Science and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas held by the late Nobel Laureate Dr. Alan G. MacDiarmid. At CRN’s conference on the Future of Nano and Bio, he spoke to the challenges and opportunities attending the commercialization of nanotechnology.
The following transcript of James Van Ehr’s CRN presentation “Commercializing Nanotechnology” has not been approved by the author.
As you’ve heard, I’m sort of a nerdy engineer made good. I grew up in Michigan and went to Texas Instruments right out of school, did software engineering for eleven years, quit to start my own software company, got in at the beginning of what became desktop publishing, and managed to turn a $7000 investment and a start-up in my dining room into a company that was worth $100 million when we sold it in ’95. That gave me a nest egg to do what I want to do in life. I had heard Eric Drexler talk in ’93 about nanotechnology. He was in Texas at the time getting the Kilby Innovators Award from Texas Instruments. He stood up in front of an auditorium and had the most fantastic-sounding, goofy-looking stuff about self-replicating machines and nanomanufacturing. I went up to him afterwards and asked him, “Well, how do I learn more technical information on this?” And he recommended his book Nanosystems, which I ordered from the bookstore, read it, convinced myself that there was something here and somebody needs to be doing this stuff. So, I had to stay around at Macromedia, the company that I sold my software company to, for awhile.
During the time that I was managing the group, I started looking for someone to fund. I wanted to be a venture capitalist and fund somebody else to work 70 hours a week for ten years. I had already done it. My wife thinks I’m nuts for starting up Zyvex, but I couldn’t find anybody credible to fund at the time. My limit of patience was about six months. At that point I decided I needed to start my own Nano company. This was back in ’97 when I actually started Zyvex, before Nano got cool, before the National Nanotech Initiative got started. At the time, I went to the University of Texas at Dallas and told them I want some help from the university in doing Nano. Literally, one of the professors burst out laughing when I told him what I wanted to do. That’s where Nano was in ’96. That guy now is at the Nanotech Institute of another local university, so it’s ironic. The day after, figuratively speaking, the National Nanotech Initiative was announced all these academics who were giggling about it before were suddenly there with their hand out saying, “I’ve been doing this stuff for years and I want some of this money.” I think the success of Nano will be when Scientific America, which published a pretty unflattering article a few years ago on Nano, Drexler, Merkle and the whole idea of molecular manufacturing when they publish an editorial saying they predicted this years ago, they had articles talking about the coming nanotechnology era, they have devoted numerous issues to nanotech, and boy they were there cheerleading all along.
When I look at this as a technologist, I’m excited about the technology. When I look at it as a businessman, it’s hard not to get an interest in Nano. By our analysis, when we look at the change that true molecular nanotechnology is going to allow in the economy, it’s a big number. $14 trillion. Break it down into these other sectors, the blue ones are where we think Zyvex has some direct role. We have an indirect role in all of those sectors, but a much more direct role in the colored ones. As I say, I started Zyvex in ’97, incorporated it, started out in a 400 square foot office in a building that I owned that I had my software company in. I started hiring people and the goal was to do atomically precise manufacturing, or molecular manufacturing. We grew slowly and have become a fairly well respected company. It’s amazing what you can accomplish just by existing for a long period of time and not messing up too badly. But our first several years were spent just doing basic research. We had to build some of the tools. We had to explore our way, and I must admit, I don’t necessarily know the way to get to that mountain that I can see in the distance. I can’t tell you the exact roadmap there, but the mountain is still there and it seems like we’re getting a little closer.
Earlier this year, I took the company that we had built and the products that we had out on the market and said this is starting to get difficult to manage. It’s time to split it into focused companies. We were having customers who were confused about whether we were a materials company, or a tools company, or a research company. So we split it into piece. I’m going to talk about how we got there, then about the pieces, and where we’re going. Now, unlike a lot of Nano companies, we’re pretty proud of our customer list and you’ll probably see some names up there you recognize. Over the years we have sold a lot of things to a lot of companies. Some of those are products, some of those are research services. We also have alliances. We know we can’t do everything ourselves. We need friends and partners. Zyvex Instruments has tools. I’ll show you some of those probing tools. Zyvex Labs is where I’m spending most of my time. Zyvex Asia, based in Singapore, is working with Zyvex Labs. It turns out, thanks to the immigration policies of the U.S., we can’t bring smart, talented people into the U.S. to work if they happen to be born in some other country. So if we want to hire them, we have to set up facilities in another country, and Singapore is a very interesting and attractive place to do that. It’s quite easy for people with advanced degrees and a job offer to get a permanent residency or at least a work permit in Singapore. We find that we’re having to export the jobs to a place where we can actually hire the brain power.
This is a close-up of our nanomanipulator. This particular unit is an eight probe system. This goes into an electron microscope. Each of these probes is holding a 5 tungsten wire, probing the transistors on the IC. This particular unit is closed-loop position feedback. We know the position of this thing to about a micron in x, y, and z. Then we use the electron microscope to fine adjust the actual position. The point of this is, in this case, to land on an integrated circuit, so the semiconductor houses around the world, the people working on the most advanced chips, below 90 nanometer a node, they need this kind of a tool to probe their chips. They take a chip, they partially deprocess it, and get down to this contact level. These are little plugs of metal, either copper or tungsten, and these connect to wires that go down to the transistors. The size of these dots is about 100 nanometers, or about the size of a virus. We have very sharp tungsten probes that we etch and can manipulate those, with that system I just showed, to land on any contact of any transistor of any chip made in the world today.
So we’re able to probe even at the 45 nanometer node, which is the most advanced in near production. We have some 32 nanometer test chips that are starting to come through development fabs. We put that system into an electron microscope just to show what it looks like going in. We drive the positions of the probe with that joystick and control it with this bank of equipment. A close-up view of what it looks like inside the microscope. We also use this for research. Here it is showing a nanowire. We go in and touch it with the probes, and break it at a precise location. We can pick those nanowires up and manipulate them around, perform electrical measurements, do mechanical structuring, build things at the nanoscale. The point of us building this manipulator in the first place was to do research in carbon nanotubes. Pull them apart and measure their mechanical properties to make sure they were as good as they were rumored to be. We land the probes on these contacts and then we can measure the electronic properties of that transistor and capture this data using one of our partner’s test equipment, the Keithley 4200-SCS that generates the signals and analyzes the data coming back. We capture this data and that tells the design engineers how to improve their chips.
This is our flagship product now. We’ve gone from a very crude lab prototype pulling apart carbon nanotubes in our labs to a few years later a very nicely packaged $1.5 million system that has a lot of software wrapped around this technology. Our semiconductor customers go anywhere from that low-end unit that I showed you up to this high-end unit. You can spend $100,000 to buy a four probe system if you are a university; you can spend $1.5 million to buy this eight probe system if you are a semiconductor house. The economics of this system are pretty compelling. In the semiconductor industry one of our customers used the lower-end system, they came and did a couple of days of probing, a couple of days of analysis. In one week, they learned enough about their chip that they went back to the fab, changed their design process, and saved $20 million a year. I wish that I could charge on the basis of what I save the customers. Another one had a similar experience. It was about a week, maybe a little bit longer. They went back, made a design change that saved them $10 million a year from that point forward just by increasing their yields, the number of good chips that they make out of a given number of wafers. So the economics are pretty compelling to our customers.
Not all of them get these kinds of savings, but basically the point is that the system pays for itself in a very short time. This is spinning out of the work that we did in the very early days with the nanomanipulator pulling apart carbon nanotubes and measuring mechanical properties. The reason that we did that was I was fascinated with carbon nanotubes. Maybe you know a lot more about carbon nanotubes than I need to explain, but this is a little rolled up sheet of carbon atoms. It tends to be about 1/10,000 the diameter of hair, anywhere from one nanometer in diameter to 30 nanometers depending on whether it is a single wall or multi-wall tube. It’s about 20 times stronger in tensile strength than the best stainless steel that we have and about 100 times stronger than normal steel. That’s pretty good material. It’s the best known electrical conductor and heat conductor, but it’s almost impossible to process these thing. What fascinated me about it was we had done some nanomanipulation experiments that showed that we could go into a little tangle of nanotubes, pull out one under the electron microscope, and attach it to the probe. Then we can take that probe off and hold it with tweasers, and now I have an object that is in my hand at one scale, and the other end of that nanotube is molecular scale. You can attach a molecule to it and do chemistry by hand one molecule at a time. It’s the only thing that I know of that spans that range of sizes.
So it’s been fascinating to me for awhile. It’s interesting to think about building structures out of nanotubes. If you had a lot of wires or straws, by gluing them together could you build something useful out of that technology? One of the chemists that we hired to research carbon nanotubes had a breakthrough one day. He was in his office typing away at a publication and I asked, “What’re you doing?” He had figured out how to solublize nanotubes and was writing up a publication for a big chemical journal that chemists love to be published in. I said, “Have you patented it?” He said, “…no.” So we stopped that, called in a patent lawyer, and filed some patents on it. What he had come up with, he and a friend of his at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, was one of several Holy Grails of nanotube processing. As manufactured, these tubes just come in a tangle. They’re almost impossible to process. They don’t disperse in water or in organic solvents. Virtually nothing can get that tangle unbundled. But our chemical that we now call Kentera allows us to unbundle that, and process the nanotubes into useful forms.
The premise of Zyvex performance materials is to take that breakthrough in technology, put it with a lot of know-how, a lot of processing expertise and customer experience, sample preparation and testing, and make useful stuff for the world. Our first customer, at least in sports, their first product was bicycle parts. Then they went to hockey sticks and then to baseball bats. Easton makes a lot of baseball bats and hockey sticks, so that was an important customer. We were able to give them about a 10 to 15% performance boost over the best that they had been able to achieve without nanotubes. You might think that for something that’s supposed to be one hundred times stronger than steel, 10% really isn’t very much. But in the sporting goods arena, 10% is the difference between a high school athlete and an Olympic gold metal winner in a lot of sports. That one product led us to other customers. Boeing came up to us at a show one time, we were showing bicycle parts, and they said, “We’d tried nanotubes. People told us they were wonderful. We put them into our material, it makes it worse. But, tell us about this bicycle part.” Now we are working with Boeing.
What we do with the nanotubes is something humans have been doing for a long time. If you take mud and put a straw in it, the straw reinforces the mud. Similar thing with steel-reinforced concrete. Concrete is good at compression, steel is good at tension, together they make a material that is good at both. We’re doing the same thing down at the nanoscale. We put carbon nanotubes into various plastics and take advantage of some of the material property of these nanotubes. The Kentera molecule we were talking about is a two-part molecule. Our chemists so molecular engineering on this system. One part interacts with the nanotube without destroying it, that’s the key thing. Most other chemistries come in and change the chemical bonding of this nanotube and destroy some of the properties we were actually looking for. Our Kentera molecule is a non-covalent interaction, so it does not actually damage the tube. We have another part that our chemists can engineer that can be compatible with various solvents. So it can drag this nanotube into solution in water, organic solvents, alcohols. By doing the right kind of engineering, we can put functional groups on these red parts of the molecule and bond the Kentera molecule to the polymer matrix that holds the nanotube in place after we get it disbursed.
This mountain bike weighs 13 pounds. I can lift it up with two fingers. Last summer we presented that to President Bush and he was supposed to give it to the Smithsonian but he liked it so much that he ended up paying the tax on it and kept it. We also have the baseball bats here. The beauty of this material is the marketing benefit that it conveys. Sprinkle in a little magic nano-dust and suddenly you have a baseball bat that people will pay $270 for. We brand these things. You’ll notice the “powered by Zyvex” there. On the bottom left we have a golf club shaft used to win the U.S. Open last spring. With this golf club we’re giving a 15% performance boost over the best that they have been able to do. For just a small cost increment, they are able to charge five to ten times more than that cost in terms of the overall price of the unit. There are a about fifty companies worldwide making carbon nanotubes. A lot of them are spin-offs from universities. They don’t understand process control or quality manufacturing, they don’t have the ability to do scale-up or the funding to invest billions of dollars. We found a few vendors around the world that do all of those things. We bring them in, do an inspection, and produce a concentrated material that we sell. What they’re really buying from us is this supply chain, they’re not buying nanotubes. We don’t want to be a nanotube vendor.
I’m going to move onto Zyvex Labs. What I’m showing on this page are cartoons here and an actual picture of how we’re going to move toward atomically precise manufacturing. That was the mission of Zyvex when I started. I ramped it up quite a bit because the National Nanotech Initiative created so much excitement around Nano, I said, “We’ve got to grow faster if we’re going to remain relevant.” I can’t grow on my own money alone. We need customers and we need other sources of funds. Since that point, the bloom is off the rose of Nano. A couple years ago the VC‘s were just all over the Nano conferences. These days you would be hard-pressed to find a VC at a Nano conference. VC’s have all moved off to Clean Tech. That’s the new buzzword and the VC’s are all very excited in investing overly large amounts of money. We’re still working on Nano. With this decline in the hype factor, we’re able to actually put our head down and focus on creating this atomically precise manufacturing.
What we have up on the top is a cartoon showing atomically precise structures. The blue atoms are silicon, the green atoms are germanium. We have a proposed method of making this structure. You could make the germanium as a sacrificial layer, etch those away and release this structure. I will show you some microscale versions of this. Down on the bottom here, one of our collaborators, Joe Lyding at the University of Illinois has done atomically precise patterning on a silicon surface. The blue here is the silicon surface. This is all in an ultra high vacuum hydrogen-passivated silicon surface. He popped the hydrogens off on specific occasions using a scanning tunnel microscope and showers down a gas that sticks only to the parts that have been popped off. Now obviously this is not engineering practice yet. It’s kind of crude and I wouldn’t want to make my next computer out of this technology, but it clearly shows that you can go and pattern with atomic precision.
This is the chart that kind of drives me and drives my companies. I have become friends with Rick Smalley over the years. I heard about his great debate with Eric Drexler, which was kind of two people shooting arrows. Totally different directions. Rick liked to divide Nano into the wet and dry side. I like to further subdivide it into passive and active. If we look at biotech today, all the action is down here at passive, wet biology. These things don’t really move. They have function based on their size, shape, charge and interaction with other nanoscale proteins and enzymes. But when you look at how nature actually manufactures, it’s up here in the active region. Ribosomes move things along, molecular motors pumping stuff through membranes, enzymes that are changing shape, steering molecular fragments to the active sites to catalyze a reaction. All the manufacturing that biotech does is done by active systems at a similar scale to the products that they make.
All the action in Nano today is down here in passive. Over here we’re using big machines to make little things. It is hard to make precise little things with big machines. Taking a clue from nature, if we’re going to be making dry nano stuff, we probably ought to use machines that are on a similar scale to the product that we’re making. I tried to have this discussion with Rick over a beer one time. I tried to tell him what I was going to do and he just would not talk with me about it. I liked Rick. I miss the fact that he’s gone. But it did annoy me that I couldn’t have a discussion. He said, “If you want to finish the beer then let’s change the subject.” So we changed the subject, finished our beer, and had a nice discussion, but not about what I thought we should do with Nano.
My goal with Zyvex is this: molecular nanotechnology. Precise rearrangement of atoms into a higher value product. We have a relatively valueless hunk of junk here, which is a lump of coal. Carbon atoms in an amorphous arrangement. If we could take those same atoms and rearrange them in a different way, we could make this lump a diamond. We would have something that’s a lot more valuable. When I first mentioned what I wanted to do, someone in the audience said, “So are you going to make big lumps of diamond with your nano machines?” I said, if you consider the value of a cubic foot of diamond, it might be worth maybe a billion dollars. The first one would be, the second one probably wouldn’t be. But the real value is not in having this square foot of coal, which is amorphous, or this square foot of diamond, which is totally crystalline. The real value is somewhere in between, in being able to control how we put those together. If I left out 90% of these atoms and I turned this into a computer, the size of a sugar cube would have more computing power than all the computers Intel has ever made. If I made the same technology to make medical devices, this much carbon would make enough medical devices to cure almost anything. That has a lot higher value than a lump of computers. So it’s all about the arrangement of the atoms.
My goal with Zyvex Labs is to lead the commercialization of this adaptable, affordable, molecularly precise manufacturing. We’ve had some great manufacturing paradigms over the years. Throughout human history we’ve had the blacksmith model: the craftsman, the artisan who could make almost anything, but only one-off. Blacksmiths were very versatile. They built the industrial revolution, but then at the turn of the last century Henry Ford realized that if I have a machine that stamps out identical parts, and an assembly line of specialized people putting the parts together, I can do the assembly cheaper. The parts become cheaper and the assembly becomes cheaper. That changed manufacturing. The semiconductor industry had another epiphany. If I just shine light through a mask I can etch this structure and make arbitrary complexity in two dimensions and quite a bit of complexity in three dimensions. I can have a factory that will make different products just by changing the mask. I’m changing the sequencing of operations that I make with that mask. Of course, we know what that has led to in terms of reducing the cost of manufacturing.
We have had a few huge cost reductions in manufacturing as the technology improves. But now we’re on the verge of atomically precise manufacturing, where the factory itself is made out of the same technology as the product. The downfall of the semiconductor plant is Moore‘s second law. His first law is that transistors’ price performance doubles every 18 months. The second law is that the cost of the fabs to make those integrated circuits is going up exponentially. It’s currently at about $4 billion. The next generation might not be affordable by companies. It might take countries or consortia. The reason for that is that the fab itself does not benefit very much from the products that it’s making. The products themselves are coming down in a learning curve. As you make more volume, the cost per unit goes down. But the cost of the factory goes up. With Nano, I think Drexler’s major conceptual breakthrough was that the machine that’s doing this manipulation is made out of atoms. So, one of the products that you make ought to be one of those machines. And now the machines can get cheaper as the products get cheaper. The machine is assembled into a factory, that factory becomes cheaper as the parts that go in it become cheaper. It’s sort of a mix of all the things that have gone on in the past, but put together in a new way. That double declining learning curve of the parts getting cheaper as we get better at manufacturing, the factory gets cheaper as we get better at making the parts. We’ve got to have cheap assembly, we’ve got to have cheap parts, but we’re on a pathway to get all of that.
Now we’re at a paradigm shift in manufacturing. I kind of study economics in my spare time, such as it is. We’re in an era where a lot of hand-wringers talk about finite resources and using up the earth. We’re destroying everything. But there is what seems to be an infinite resource, and it’s human ingenuity. If we can think up a new way to do stuff and make a buck, that’s the difference between a handful of beach sand, which is worth approximately nothing, and the same atoms in a different arrangement make silicon chips. You transform something from dollars per ton into hundreds of billions by arranging the atoms a different way. You get optical fiber out of it, which hooks together all of these computers. Human ingenuity has turned beach sand into the ingredients for a pretty valuable set of industries. Free markets to be able to allocate resources to places were they do the most bang for the buck is going to make this happen pretty quickly.
This is a chart I dug up from Norio Taniguchi of Tokyo Science University. In ’83 he published this chart showing machining. This curve is showing normal machining. Here is precision machining on this curve, and ultra-precision machining on this curve. I drew a little dot here where ultra-precision machining intersects atomic precision. It’s about 2010 or 2012. Kind of intriguing to see this guy predicting that back in ’83. You’ve heard a lot from other speakers about the goals of atomically precise manufacturing. I think this is the endpoint of the industrial revolution. You don’t get any better manufacturing precision with known physics. I kind of like to stick to known physics. Anti-gravity and time travel isn’t really high on my agenda. I’m a businessman and like to make some money while I’m helping the world to be a better place, and the world pays people to make the world a better place.
Where we’re going is going to be disruptive. Manufacturing is going to be a lot greener. Conventional manufacturing has us build big machines to dig up millions of tons of dirt to process it and we throw away probably 99.99% of it. We take the other few atoms and make it into stuff. We use it and we throw it away. It doesn’t seem like the most effective, efficient way to use any of the resources. I think the best way to use things more effectively is to have a higher level of technology. When you think about a factory belching smoke into the air, I don’t think anybody wants this, it’s just cheaper than to not generate it in the first place. I think that with Nano we’re going to be able to not generate it in the first place. It will take a lot of time and brilliant people to get there, to come up with new ways of doing things. But I can anticipate a point in the future where the people who today are wringing their hands about CO2 in the air are going to be wringing their hands about nanotechnologists taking all the CO2 out of the air.
I view it in a different way. The poorest country in the world with the right kind of nanomachine and some brainpower will be able to sit down and program something that will be ten times more efficient at taking the CO2 out of the air and building stuff with it, turning their idea into money. To me the most exciting thing about being a nanotechnologist is that transition. The reason I have money to do this is because the software industry allowed a person to have an idea and by moving our fingers, rearranging a few bits and pixels, we turned that idea into money. With nanotechnology and a programmable machine that can rearrange atoms and build stuff, that will have a higher economic value than mere bits and pixels. I think the opportunities are enormous.
Here is what we want to do. Built at atomic scale. We have a lot of markets that we have in mind for this technology. What we have to do is bootstrap ourselves from what we can do today to get some revenue to do the next step and the next step. It will be awhile before we are building machines to cure cancer and take the CO2 out of the air. A brilliant computational chemist worked for us a couple years ago. We like bio-klepticism as well. We like to steal good ideas from nature. We don’t directly copy nature’s building blocks but we do take it as an existence proof that this thing is possible. He looked at how enzymes work and realized we could probably build a synthetic enzyme if we have atomic precision. What an enzyme does is you have typically two building blocks that come together, they do a little molecular dance as they’re interacting, and during the reaction there is a particular confirmation where they are starting to go up and over a barrier and down into a reactant molecule, and that’s the transition state. Natural enzymes stabilize the atoms in that state just a little longer than they would normally be in that state, which gives them time to react. With the right kind of tools we can build that kind of reaction surface that would stabilize virtually any reaction. There are a lot of reactions nature can’t do because the reactants or the final product will kill the living cell that does it. We have a lot more chemistry that opens up if we can make these things.
What I want to do with Zyvex is not make everything that is possible in the world, of course. That’s too ambitious even for me. All I want to make are the machines that are able to make every possible thing. We want to be the tool supplier to the manufacturing base of the world. I don’t want to make integrated circuits. Intel and TI are pretty good at that. But I’d love to sell them machines that make integrated circuits better than they could make today. I don’t want to make medical devices. I don’t have the patience to wait for the FDA to study it for ten years before they let me save people’s lives. I’d rather make the machines that make those and let somebody else spend a billion dollars on a new drug. What we’re trying to do is build a factory that can do this molecularly precise manufacturing. We already pioneered the spin-off model. Zyvex Performance Materials and Zyvex Instruments are essentially spin-offs from the idea that launched Zyvex. Zyvex Labs is following the ongoing premise of doing atomically precise manufacturing. I’m pleased to say we’ve gotten some money from the government. Ten years ago DARPA would not talk to us. Now they’re actually funding us. Part of the reason we’re in Singapore is because the Singapore government is very attuned to this atomically precise manufacturing. Foresight Institute and Battelle Labs joined together to do a roadmap for productive nanosystems. Part of that effort, they brought over a guy that runs a research institute for a government lab in Singapore. A lightbulb went on in his head. He is now collaborating closely with us. The government of Singapore is putting money into it. It’s starting to take off.
We’re going to be continuing down this path to atomically precise manufacturing. We do have some problem getting the talent that we need. It still is difficult. People are skeptical that this can be done. Some of the smartest people that I’ve talked to decided to go into academia. I consider them somewhat lost, because things move at a different pace in academia. Others go into government labs, which is even slower. But here is the plan. Start with hydrogen-passivated silicon surfac, pop the hydrogens off, shower down some other molecules which stick to the parts which were popped off. What we’re working on is to make this a more engineer-oriented system so that we can do this repeatedly and with higher yields. We have a few products in mind for early stages, where we have one probe doing this operation. We believe we can make money with just one probe doing just one atom at a time with the right kind of high-value products. Then we have a parallel array of those things, and I’ll show you some of the MEMS work we’re doing. We had a project going a couple of years ago building micromachines where we could do parallel operations. As you can imagine, if I can make a successful business, even if it’s only like a couple million dollars a year making something one atom at a time, if I have a thousand probes doing it, suddenly that business becomes a lot more interesting.
We had a silicon micromachines project going. This was the first time we ever applied for a grant and we won a $25 million five-year program to build these. We have silicon micromachines that can do electron, photon, and ion optics. Here we have electron lens assembly. This allows us to shrink the size of an electron microscope from the size of a desk down to a briefcase. It’s a little ahead of where the electron microscope vendors want to sell products right now. We want to partner with those guys rather than be our own electron microscope manufacturer. It takes a lot of software, vacuum systems, and other stuff we’re not particularly good at, but I’m getting frustrated waiting for them to come around to wanting a desktop electron microscope. We have 14 lens elements assembled into this little thing. It’s less than a square centimeter in size and gives better precision of these lenses than the big ones that are hand-assembled.
Here we have photon optics. We also have little moving machines. Here there’s a rack that engages with this gear. On this plate is a finger that is the right size to pick up these MEMS components and put them together. This is the first stage of a machine that can make a copy of itself. I think this is about half a millimeter. It’s assembled on a 50 micron-thick tungsten wire about the diameter of one hair. We haven’t built anything terribly practical yet, but the scale of this machine vindicates what we’ve been doing. Some of this work is done with a scanning tunnel microscope, some is done with an atomic force microscope. When I started Zyvex I figured it would take ten years to do all this stuff. I thought we would be a lot further along the path to atomically precise manufacturing than we are. I didn’t think we would be as far along the commercialization pathway as we are. The instigation of the National Nanotech Initiative kind of moved up my commercialization plans. Now I want to get back to the basics and to why I started this company.
I’m just telling you a piece of the whole nanotech commercialization story. There are a lot of companies out there working hard to commercialize mostly in that bottom right quadrant of powders and non-functional nanomaterials. That’s fine. If they can make a better battery for my laptop, that’s pleasant. But it’s not going to change the world the way that atomically precise manufacturing will. Our mission is to change the world by doing this kind of nanotechnology, and our goal is to make digital matter. That’s the Zyvex story.