Nanotechnology has developed its fair share of notable overachievers — folks who are creatively exploring (and staking claim to) the uncharted territory of the nano scale.

Richard Smalley

Richard Smalley is a professor at Rice University, situated in Houston, Texas. In 1985, Smalley, along with Robert Curl and Sir Harold Kroto, discovered C60, the buckminsterfullerene (also known affectionately as the buckyball) — in effect, the key to the molecular structures most readily used in nanotechnology. As a result, all three shared the Nobel Prize in 1996 in chemistry.

Professor Smalley has spent the last 20 years or so busily promoting nanotechnology in general, as well as perfecting production methods of another form of fullerene, the carbon nanotube — "a gift from Mother Nature," as he describes it.

Charles Lieber

A Harvard University professor, Charles Lieber has pioneered the synthesis, characterization, and development of nano-scale wires. He has continued to demonstrate applications of these nanowires in nanocomputing, nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, and biological and chemical sensing. Capitalizing on these breakthroughs in nanomaterials, he founded a nanotechnology company — Nanosys, Inc. — in 2001. Its goal was to develop a "google" of patents (over 350 completed patents and patent-pending applications). These would include flexible electronics (think circuit boards on thin sheets of plastic), solar cells, fuel cells, and nonvolatile computer memory.

Hongjie Dai

Stanford University associate professor Hongjie Dai has taken carbon nanotubes to new heights — or (perhaps more appropriately) depths — of nano-sophistication. After his stint at Rice University, where he worked with Richard Smalley, he has continued to study the suitability of carbon nanotubes for future miniaturized devices. No easy task. For openers, he not only has to achieve precision operations despite the small size of the carbon nanotubes, but also decipher their unique quantum effects. As it happens, Dai's team is making progress with two applications that will improve nanotech itself. They're using nanotubes as chemical sensors and as tips for atomic-force microscopes — both of which give nanoscientists unprecedented resolution and sensitivity to see what they're doing down there.

James Heath

California Institute of Technology professor James Heath started his nanotechnology trek back in 1985; as a graduate student, he ran the experimental apparatus in the work that led to Richard Smalley's discovery of C60 at Rice University. He has the happy knack of getting his experiments to work — and is described as a brilliant experimental scientist by his peers. After a brief stint at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Labs, he moved on to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he pioneered the molecular switch, using nanowires and molecules. Additionally, he developed a scanning optical microscope used in noninvasive probing of the electrical functions of living cells — in effect, poking and prodding cells to image them without hurting them.

James Von Ehr II

James Von Ehr is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Zyvex Corporation, a nanotech company specializing in nano-size manipulators — tools that allow scientists to manipulate nano-size structures under a microscope. Before founding Zyvex, Von Ehr was founder, president, chairman, and CEO of Altsys Corporation, the company that developed the first PostScript drawing program.

George Whitesides

George Whitesides is a chemistry professor at Harvard and a member of the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group — a U.S. government advisory committee. His research has influenced (and continues to influence) material science, surface science, microfluidics, self-assembly, and of course, nanotechnology. His main focus has been surface chemistry — particularly that of organic surfaces — nonmetal surfaces such as skin, wood, or fabric.

Paul Alivisatos

Paul Alivisatos is a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His real claim to fame lies in his work with semiconducting nanocrystals. These nanocrystals come in different shapes and sizes — quantum dots, nanorods, tetrapods, and other such exotic creations.

Angela Belcher

Biomedical engineer Angela Belcher is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at MIT. Before coming to MIT, she was a chemistry professor at the University of Texas in Austin, where she pioneered the (cost-effective) use of genetically modified viruses in the self-assembly of nanowires, thin films, and other nanomaterials. In essence, she's using Mother Nature to help build nanostructures. Belcher has successfully combined inorganic and biochemistry, molecular biology, electrical engineering, and material science into one lean, mean nanotechnological machine. Her work promises a direct (and sizable) impact on drug discovery and delivery, materials and catalysts, and self-assembling electronic materials.

Visionaries: Richard Feynman and Eric Drexler

Once described as "The Smartest Man in the World," Richard Feynman laid out the essentials of a nanotech capability in his 1959 talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Educated at MIT and Princeton, he started his career as a group leader for the Manhattan Project in his early 20s. In 1950, he moved on to Caltech. His highly effective teaching broke down problems and concepts to their simplest level, and guided students to discover the answers themselves. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, sharing it with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga, for work on how subatomic particles interact. In 1986, he worked on the commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle explosion, accurately and simply demonstrating the cause of the disaster. Although he died in 1988, his vision for nanotechnology's potential lives on.

Also from MIT, Eric Drexler illustrates molecular manufacturing and lays the groundwork for the public's current perception of nanotechnology in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. This is the book that first mentions "gray goo," warning of self-replicating nanotechnology running amok and covering the earth. Science fiction, always fond of farfetched disasters, grabbed the topic and ran with it. Most scientists downplayed this scenario, but Drexler's book sparked a wider interest in nanotechnology and brought it to the attention of the public.

Molecular Logic: James Tour and Mark Reed

James Tour is a chemist at Rice University. Mark Reed is a physicist at Yale University. Together, they make molecular logic. While Tour was at the University of South Carolina, he collaborated with Reed throughout the 1990s. Tour would synthesize the molecules and Reed would perform the experiments. They coax the molecules into spontaneously orienting themselves onto the electrodes. If this approach truly works out, it may be a cheap replacement for silicon-based computer chips. Additionally, since they incorporate molecules, these innovations could bridge the gap between biology and computing — resulting in implantable biochips that respond to chemical clues and discharge an appropriate dose of medication.