Nanotechnology: The Science of Small Things
By Glen Hiemstra, 2000
The concept of nanotechnology, first suggested by Richard Feynman over 40 years ago, is now coming much closer to actual existence. We still classify it a wildcard, though many in the field will disagree and say it is a sure thing.
Nanotechnology –examining the world at a millionth of meter and utilizing the ability to manipulate our universe at a molecular or atomic perspective — has united scientists across the country in the belief that the worlds of medicine, computers, biotechnologies and eventually all manufacturing will never be approached in the same way again. President Clinton appears to agree, allocating nearly $500 million dollars towards nanotechnological research in the 2001 budget. It has even hit the mainstream, prominently featured in Time Magazine June 19, 2000 and US News & World Report, July 3, 2000.
The field of nanotechnology has two “holy grails” as it were. First, learn how to successfully manipulate material at the molecular and atomic level, using both chemical and mechanical tools. This is considered by most researchers to be probable, and there are successes in the lab. The second is to develop self-replicating nano machines, since so many are needed to perform useful work. This is considered the greater challenge, and both less likely to be successful and more in the distant future.
Atoms can now be manipulated, separated and put back together in different formations, creating bread from grass, or building microscopic robots. But what are the practical uses of this new technology? What can it do to improve our world? As research companies such as ZyvexTech and Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Lab attest, the possibilities seem virtually limitless. One of the most anticipated uses of nanotechnology is the creation of medical nanobots, made up of a few molecules and controlled by a nanocomputer or ultrasound. These nanobots will be used to manipulate other molecules, destroying cholesterol molecules in arties, destroying cancer cells or constructing nerve tissue atom by atom in order to end paralysis.
Nanotechnology also has potential uses outside the realm of biology. By bonding a molecule with a nanoparticle, or single atom, scientists are able to create substances such as fullerenes, molecules of carbon atoms that when put together they form tubular fibers, called “nanotubes”. When those fibers are threaded together and crystallized they can act as metal, but 100 times stronger and four times lighter than steel. Large-scale production of such material would change not only the way automobiles are built, but airplanes and space shuttles as well, even opening the door for civilian space travel through the construction of space elevators. (If you want to get started building your own nanotube shuttle, you can buy nanotube material at the “Tubes at Rice” home page. Rice University is one of the leading research centers in the field and home of Richard Smalley, Nobel Prize winner for work in nanotech.)
Environmental clean up is another imagined use for nanobots, with fingers built from nanotubes but in proportions 50,000 times as thin as human hair. These fingers would reach out and manipulate the atoms in an oil spill to render it harmless. In the energy field, atoms bonded together in a specific fashion would create a machine that converts water to hydrogen with the use of sunlight, promising a new, limitless, energy source (we know?.how many times have we heard that one?).
Yet creating these nanobots is a painstakingly slow and precise process, and due to the microscope size of these tiny machines, millions are necessary to complete the tasks they are designed to perform. Therefore the key to this technology becoming a reality is to make the nanobot self-replicating, done in a fashion similar to that of a human cell. It is the discovery of how to create this process, as well as the means to control it, which is key to fulfilling the potential of nanotechnology. Also key is creation of a nanocomputer with a capability twice the existing capacity of a full sized computer, within the nanobot itself. This computer may guard against the feared scenario of invisible machines gone out of control and covering the world in “gray goo” by directing the nanobot to self-destruct after a predetermined number of replications, or to only self-replicate under specific environmental conditions.
Meyya Meyyapan, manager of devices at NASA Ames Research Center in San Jose recently suggested that, “…the real applications of nanoelectronics are 15 years out.” Fifteen years is quite close when you think about it. The projected uses of nanotechnology are exciting and potentially life altering. Imagine what more can be discovered as the technology is refined over the next decade. All scientific disciplines are now meeting at a common level, the nanoscale, and their discoveries will more than likely change our world in a profound way.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.
Photos from Nanotechnology Photo Gallery
Nanotech Businesses and Research Facilities’ Sites
Zyvex, the first molecular nanotechnology company
Cornell Nanofabrication Facility
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University
The NanoManipulator University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Computer Science