Jim Von Ehr is interviewed by Sander Olson for Nextbigfuture. Mr. Von Ehr founded the Zyvex Corporation in the 1990s in order to expedite the development of molecular manufacturing. He has recently spun off Zyvex into Zyvex Labs, Zyvex Performance Materials, and Zyvex Instruments. Mr. Von Ehr hopes to have a primitive nanotechnology system that can create blocklike objects by 2015 and rudimentary molecular manufacturing by 2020.
Zyvex had a $25 million grant from NIST in 2001 and $15 million from DARPA in 2008 and has other grants and support for several million from Texas and other US government programs and they have some commercial products.
Von Ehr, who sold his first company for $100 million in 1995, has poured millions of dollars into companies working on everything from mobile software to telecom hardware to Internet portals to electronic prosthetics. But his day job is running the company he founded in 1997, Richardson-based nanotechnology company Zyvex Corp.
Varaha, which makes software that lets cellphones seamlessly switch from cellular networks to Wi-Fi networks, is one of about a half-dozen start-up firms in which Von Ehr is actively invested.
Von Ehr is using his money to push near-term creations at companies such as Varaha; optical network terminal maker TXP in Richardson ; 10C Technologies Inc. in Addison, which is developing battery-charging systems; and Dallas-based medical devices company TissueGen Inc.
He also contributed $3.5 million to establish the University of Texas at Dallas NanoTech Institute, endowed the James Von Ehr Distinguished Chair of Science and Technology at the university and sits on the board of venture capital firm STARTech Early Ventures LLC in Richardson.
Here is a link to a 26 minute interview of Jim Von Ehr for WHYY PBS.
Question 1: Zyvex originally had an emphasis on facilitating molecular manufacturing. Is Zyvex still doing research directly related to molecular manufacturing?
: Absolutely. Zyvex was founded with the goal of doing atomically precise manufacturing. Along the way, we had to develop some of our own tools. This led to spinoff businesses such as Zyvex Performance Materials and Zyvex Instruments. I sold Zyvex Instruments earlier this year (Feb, 2010 DCG Systems buys Zyvex Instruments), and am no longer directly affiliated with them, and I am only involved with Zyvex Performance Materials as Chairman of the Board, so my efforts are now primarily focused on Zyvex Labs.
Question 2: Zyvex Performance Materials has developed a new composite. What is special about this material?
: We have developed a composite material that is loaded with carbon nanotubes, using our proprietary technology to achieve superior strength/weight ratios compared to other composites. We recently created a boat with this composite, with much better fuel efficiency and range than boats made from fibreglass or other composites. This material clearly has potential for aerospace applications, leading to Lockheed Martin investing in us to develop this area.
Question 3: What is the Atomically Precise Manufacturing Consortium?
: Our Vice-President, Dr. John Randall, defined Zyvex’s Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) program, and initiated a Consortium of universities and companies working with us in order to expedite development of this capability. Zyvex, and this APM Consortium, won an award from DARPA, with match by the State of Texas, funding our tip-based nanomanufacturing program. One of our partners is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST is important because nanomanufacturing companies, including the semiconductor industry, need to be able to accurately measure at the nanoscale, which creates opportunities for us to sell nanometrology products. Our ultimate goal is single-atom precision, building atomically precise objects on request.
Question 4: Your current approach to nanotechnology involves using tips to move individual atoms. How can this lead to macro scale objects?
: Even moving one atom at a time, we can cost effectively build valuable products. But we ultimately want to be able to employ trillions of tips so that we can adopt the massively parallel approach that nature uses when it makes biological nanostructures.
Question 5: Who is funding Zyvex labs? Is funding adequate?
: Zyvex Labs is funded by DARPA, the State of Texas, and myself. The current funding is adequate for the present. We face one hard scientific problem – how to grow an atomically perfect layer of silicon on top of patterns that we make. Other than that, it is “simply” engineering, and engineering problems are usually solved by investing money and paying attention to details. So these problems are tractable.
Question 6: Eric Drexler has advocated a DNA origami approach, but others favor a direct to diamondoid strategy. Which approach do you favor?
: We actually have our own distinct approach which is neither DNA origami nor direct to diamondoid. The ease of programming a computer controlled milling machine, which could make all manner of macro-scale products out of metal or plastic simply by changing the program, makes our paradigm compelling if we can build something similar at the nanoscale. The DNA approach doesn’t lend itself to that flexibility very well. The diamondoid approach may be a great end point, but we simply don’t have that capability now. We lack the precision and well defined tips to do diamondoid. By contrast, our approach gets us to rudimentary molecular manufacturing fairly quickly.
Question 7: Would you characterize the Zyvex approach as top down or bottom up?
: That terminology is starting to fall out of favor. Advanced molecular nanotechnology requires top down control – we need to program computer-controlled machines to make things. But we also require bottom up chemistry to make the products cost-effectively. Chemists usually argue that a pure bottom up technique is the only answer, but it is fundamentally limited – we can’t simply rely on diffusion to transport material , because it’s just too slow & indeterminate. Nature exploits active transport of valuable products, and does not rely on simple diffusion.
Question 8: You played a major role in the Productive Nanosystems roadmap. How has the roadmap affected the nanotech field?
: I commend Ted Waitt, Battelle Labs, and the Foresight Institute for initiating the roadmap, but I haven’t seen much change in scientific dogma as a result of this. We have, however, seen a gradual shift in attitudes during the past decade. Ten years ago, DARPA had no interest in atomically precise manufacturing. Too many academics dismissed the concept out of hand, and wouldn’t even read the literature about what was being accomplished by their peers. Today, DARPA has a tip-based nanomanufacturing effort, and the concept of molecular manufacturing is gaining credibility. So attitudes are continuing to change.
Question 9: To what extent is nanotech research being hampered by finicky and expensive tools?
: Regarding Ultra-High-Vacuum Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), finicky and expensive are understatements. We have built our own tools, based on the design of Joe Lyding of the University of Illinois. The tools are intrinsically challenging, and creating robust STM tips is quite difficult to achieve. Moreover, there is currently no market for this, since most researchers either build the components themselves, or buy one of a small number of known systems and try to get those to work. So we, too, build most of the tools ourselves.
Question 10: How do you deal with issues of thermal drift in STMs?
: Thermal drift is a serious problem. Many researchers reduce thermal drift by cooling their systems with liquid helium. This essentially solves the problem, but I have given a mandate to my staff that we will never use liquid helium, since it is impossible to commercially manufacture anything under those circumstances. This isn’t a pure research program – it’s all about building a robust manufacturing capability that can do commercial-scale manufacturing. So our approach uses software – we examine what we’ve scanned, compare it with the previous image, and then instruct the digital signal processor to correct for that drift. This is probably the technique that any commercial STM system will use.
Question 11: Are there any plans to sell your custom equipment to other customers?
: To be honest, I don’t want the grief. When we were in the tools business, we thought that we were going to sell our systems to universities and government labs. But those research labs simply made their own equipment, sometimes even based on our designs. Moreover, many university researchers want the equipment for free, which makes it difficult to support a commercial business.
Question 12: What single development will have the biggest impact in promoting nanotech development?
: The big game-changer to my mind is Digital Matter. For enzymes, catalysts, and increasingly even for transistors, every atom has to be in the correct place in order for the molecule or component to function. Although we are not as proficient in engineering at that level as we want to be, we are clearly getting closer and closer to that level of capability.
Question 13: When is your best assessment of when molecular manufacturing will emerge?
: We are confident that we will be able to create simple, blocklike objects within the next five years. From that point, capabilities should grow fairly rapidly. Once simple block objects are created, we can programmably assemble them to make more complex objects. Zyvex has already identified a number of market opportunities for these. Once we get the basic capability of creating these simple objects, we can expand their complexity and sophistication rapidly. From the first integrated circuit to an extremely valuable integrated circuit business ecosystem took a surprisingly short amount of time, compared to previous technological revolutions. I’d expect a Digital Matter ecosystem to also develop rapidly once the basics are in place. Although I don’t feel comfortable making specific predictions as to when molecular manufacturing will emerge, by 2020 we should have rudimentary molecular manufacturing systems in operation. Once we can create these blocks, the technology of molecular manufacturing will advance exponentially. Digital matter will eventually change everything.
Zyvex Instruments’ flagship product, the nProber, is a state-of–the-art nanoprobing characterization solution for the semiconductor industry and is already proven on 22nm devices. The Zyvex NanoWorks® product line includes nanomanipulators and sample stages designed for operation in Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM) and Focused Ion Beam (FIB) systems. These systems provide the ability to electrically characterize devices with feature sizes of well under 100nm while simultaneously imaging or milling
DCG Systems, Inc., a privately held company headquartered in Fremont, California, is the leading provider of semiconductor debug and characterization solutions for the global semiconductor industry. With a commitment to applying innovative technology to improve time to yield and time to market, DCG Systems delivers competitive cost and performance advantages to integrated device manufacturers (IDMs), wafer foundries and fabless chip companies worldwide. DCG Systems is comprised of the former Schlumberger/NPTest Probe Systems division, Optonics Inc., Hypervision Inc. and Zyvex Instruments LLC, with an installed base of over 850 systems worldwide. For more information please visit http://www.dcgsystems.com
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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