The Meaning of Nanotechnology
When K. Eric Drexler (right) popularized the word ‘nanotechnology‘ in the 1980’s, he was talking about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the next ten years describing and analyzing these incredible devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction. Meanwhile, mundane technology was developing the ability to build simple structures on a molecular scale. As nanotechnology became an accepted concept, the meaning of the word shifted to encompass the simpler kinds of nanometer-scale technology. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was created to fund this kind of nanotech: their definition includes anything smaller than 100 nanometers with novel properties.
Much of the work being done today that carries the name ‘nanotechnology’ is not nanotechnology in the original meaning of the word. Nanotechnology, in its traditional sense, means building things from the bottom up, with atomic precision. This theoretical capability was envisioned as early as 1959 by the renowned physicist Richard Feynman.
I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously. . . The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big. —Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics
Based on Feynman’s vision of miniature factories using nanomachines to build complex products, advanced nanotechnology (sometimes referred to as molecular manufacturing) will make use of positionally-controlled mechanochemistry guided by molecular machine systems. Formulating a roadmap for development of this kind of nanotechnology is now an objective of a broadly based technology roadmap project led by Battelle (the manager of several U.S. National Laboratories) and the Foresight Nanotech Institute.
Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications.
Mihail (Mike) Roco of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has described four generations of nanotechnology development (see chart below). The current era, as Roco depicts it, is that of passive nanostructures, materials designed to perform one task. The second phase, which we are just entering, introduces active nanostructures for multitasking; for example, actuators, drug delivery devices, and sensors. The third generation is expected to begin emerging around 2010 and will feature nanosystems with thousands of interacting components. A few years after that, the first integrated nanosystems, functioning (according to Roco) much like a mammalian cell with hierarchical systems within systems, are expected to be developed.
Some experts may still insist that nanotechnology can refer to measurement or visualization at the scale of 1-100 nanometers, but a consensus seems to be forming around the idea (put forward by the NNI‘s Mike Roco) that control and restructuring of matter at the nanoscale is a necessary element. CRN‘s definition is a bit more precise than that, but as work progresses through the four generations of nanotechnology leading up to molecular nanosystems, which will include molecular manufacturing, we think it will become increasingly obvious that “engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale” is what nanotech is really all about.
Nanotechnology is going to change the world and the way we live, creating new scientific applications that are smaller, faster, stronger, safer and more reliable, including: New Medical Treatments Nanomedicine is focused on diagnosing and treating diseases and creating new drug delivery techniques with fewer side effects. Many nanomedicine findings are now in clinical trials and could soon be available to the public.
• Nanotech-enabled sensors may be able to “smell” cancer. Researchers have mapped the odor profile of certain skin cancers and are looking into ways to create a small electronic nose able to sense the airborne chemical pattern of skin cancer and other odors.
• Gold nanoparticles can be used to detect early stage Alzheimer’s. Other nanostructures can recognize diseased cells and deliver drugs to cancerous tumors without harming healthy cells or organs. Some researchers are designing new nanoparticles to improve biomedical imaging.
• Research is underway to use nanotechnology to engineer a gel that spurs the growth of nerve cells. The gel fills the space between existing cells and encourages new cells to grow. This process could be used to re-grow lost or damaged spinal cord and brain cells.
Cheap and clean energy
The difficulty of meeting the world’s energy demand is compounded by the growing need to protect our environment. Many scientists are looking into way to develop clean, affordable and renewable energy sources.
- Prototype solar panels incorporating nanotechnology are far more efficient than standard designs in converting sunlight to electricity, promising cheap solar power in the near future.
- Nanotechnology is already being used in new batteries, and nanostructured materials look to greatly improve hydrogen storage materials and catalysts needed to realize fuel cells for alternative transportation.
Photo credit: New solar panel films incorporate nanoparticles to improve performance (Gui Bazan, UCSB, graphic by Peter Allen).
Clean water is a precious natural resource and a basic necessity. While the worldwide supply of potable water is limited, the demand continues to increase.
- Nanotechnology could help meet the need for affordable clean water through inexpensive water purification, as well as rapid, low cost detection of impurities. Researchers already discovered unexpected magnetic interactions between ultra small specks of rust, which can help remove arsenic from drinking water.
Photo credit: Nanorust Cleans Arsenic from Drinking Water. Image courtesy of CBEN/Rice University
Pollution Reduction and Environmental Progress
There are many eco-friendly possibilities for nanotechnology, including lighter cars and machinery that requires less fuel; alternative fuel and energy sources; and materials that detect and clean up environmental contaminants.
- Scientists are examining the potential for nanosilver, which is known to have anti-microbial properties, to clean up oil spills and other hazardous chemicals in the environment.
- Nanotech- enabled sensors may one day be able to detect and identify harmful chemical or biological agents in the environment.
Improved Materials and New Products
The very structure of materials can be improved through nanotechnology, by developing nanomaterials that are stronger, lighter, more durable or better conductors, among other traits.
- Adding nanoparticles to plastics can make them stronger, lighter and more durable. Nanoparticles are currently used in baseball bats and tennis rackets, but someday may also be used in bulletproof vests and light, fuel efficient vehicles.
- Different nanoscale materials can be used in thin films to make them water-repellent, anti-reflective, self-cleaning, ultraviolet or infrared-resistant, antifog, anti-microbial, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive. Nanofilms are used now on eyeglasses, computer displays, and cameras to protect or treat the surfaces.
- Nanoscale transistors may someday lead to computers that are faster, more powerful and more energy efficient than those used today. Nanotechnology also holds the potential to exponentially increase information storage capacity; soon your computer’s entire memory will be able to be stored on a single tiny chip.
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