Although nanotechnology is a relatively recent development in scientific research, the development of its central concepts happened over a longer period of time. The emergence of nanotechnology in the 1980s was caused by the convergence of experimental advances such as the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and the discovery of fullerenes in 1985, with the elucidation and popularization of a conceptual framework for the goals of nanotechnology beginning with the 1986 publication of the book Engines of Creation.
The scanning tunneling microscope, an instrument for imaging surfaces at the atomic level, was developed in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 by Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley, and Robert Curl, who together won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Around the same time, K. Eric Drexler developed and popularized the concept of nanotechnology and founded the field of molecular nanotechnology. In 1979, Drexler encountered Richard Feynman's 1959 talk There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. The term "nanotechnology", originally coined by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, was unknowingly appropriated by Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, which proposed the idea of a nanoscale "assembler" which would be able to build a copy of itself and of other items of arbitrary complexity. He also first published the term "grey goo" to describe what might happen if a hypothetical self-replicating molecular nanotechnology went out of control. Drexler's vision of nanotechnology is often called "Molecular Nanotechnology" (MNT) or "molecular manufacturing," and Drexler at one point proposed the term "zettatech" which never became popular.
In the early 2000s, the field was subject to growing public awareness and controversy, with prominent debates about both its potential implications, exemplified by the Royal Society's report on nanotechnology, as well as the feasibility of the applications envisioned by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, which culminated in the public debate between Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley in 2001 and 2003. Governments moved to promote and fund research into nanotechnology with programs such as the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
The early 2000s also saw the beginnings of commercial applications of nanotechnology, although these were limited to bulk applications of nanomaterials, such as the Silver Nano platform for using silver nanoparticles as an antibacterial agent, nanoparticle-based transparent sunscreens, and carbon nanotubes for stain-resistant textiles.
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