Governments around the world are pouring millions of dollars into nanotechnology research. A Swiss delegation to the United States has been examining future trends.
"It's an age of exploration and discovery," said Don Eigler, of the IBM Almaden research centre in Silicon Valley, California.
Eigler earned renown in 1989 for a demonstration in which he spelled IBM with individual xenon atoms, showing for the first time that it was possible to build structures at the atomic level.
"We've made tremendous progress in creating nanometer scale objects in the last ten years," he said. "We can now create new structures which have never existed before."
Question of definition
Eric Drexler, chairman of the Foresight Institute, an organisation concerned with emerging technologies, coined the term nanotechnology in the mid 1980s to describe atomically precise molecular manufacturing systems and their products.
In his book "Engines of Creation", Drexler mapped out a world where nanorobots run around human bodies fighting disease, where next generation computers are thousands of times more powerful than today and where objects manufacture themselves for practically nothing.
"Molecular manufacturing will bring a digital revolution to the material world much as computers have brought a digital revolution to the information world," Drexler told swissinfo.
"It will handle atoms much as computers handle bits, arranging them quickly and precisely into intricate patterns chosen by human designers."
According to Drexler, manufacturing could be working with molecular precision by 2020, and the benefits will be immeasurable.
"Among the results will be a much cleaner and more productive industry that makes far fewer demands on the environment because it is much more efficient, and medical care that is good enough to keep people healthy."
Drexler's vision may be seductive but real products of this nature are still a long way off.
However, over the past few years, breakthroughs in the laboratory have revealed a glimpse of some exciting new possibilities.
These include nanotextured surfaces to make new dental implants; optical components, which can be produced with specific physical and chemical properties, and devices which work with degrees of precision less than a micrometre.
Karl Höhener, general manager of Top Nano 21, a government-sponsored initiative to further Swiss nanotechnology research and find commercial partners, told swissinfo that nanotech would slowly enter our lives.
"I see incremental improvements in materials and in services. The next generation of nano will be new functionalities for electronic devices and for sensors.
"Later on, we may come to three dimensional self-assembly structures and so on and maybe scientific visions will become reality."
Scientists have also made progress in creating nanometer scale objects from a top-down or miniaturisation approach.
"Nanotechnology as it stands today is not like a roadmap in microelectronics," said Ulrich Claessen, vice-president of the Swiss centre for electronics and microtechnology in Neuchâtel.
"It is more like a network where different capabilities come together and you have to follow this network very carefully and adopt a good idea if it comes up.
"In about ten years, I see the emergence of quantum dot lasers, nanophotonics, improved devices for electronic communication. I see also autonomous robots coming up on a small scale. Whether they are molecular machines, I doubt at present."
From a business perspective, Patrick Frei, chief executive of Zurich-based Venture Valuation, which specialises in the valuation and monitoring of start-up companies, is somewhat cautious about the predictions of the Foresight Institute.
"This is way out in the future," he said. "It's good that people are thinking about what might be possible but I'm more market-oriented and I think in shorter terms than that."
Switzerland makes about $20 million available each year for research in nanotechnology and related fields. In the US, more than $700 million has been earmarked for 2003.
Japan has identified nanotechnology as the likely definitive technology of the 21st century. Their government agency, MITI, has launched a ten-year, $100 million nanotechnology research programme.
by Vincent Landon, San Jose