By 2015 the National Science Foundation estimates there will be 1 trillion nanotechnology products and services. We hear the term “nanotechnology” bandied about as the next great thing and the next great opportunity to make a killing on the stock market. But what, exactly, is nanotechnology?
In 1959 Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman gave a lecture about the idea of building things at the atomic and molecular level thus hatching the idea of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology as it is understood today is science and engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules. We are talking very tiny stuff that ranges between 0.1 nanometers (nm) to 100 nanometers. 1mnis the equivalent of 1 billionth of a meter. If one nanometer were the width of a pinhead, then 1 meter on this scale would stretch from Washington D.C. to Atlanta.
When Feynman gave his lecture, there was no way to manipulate atoms and molecules but in 1981 IBM built a microscope called the scanning and tunneling microscope (STM). The STM allowed scientists to see single atoms. In 1990 IBM used the STM to move single xenon atoms around on a nickel surface to spell out “IBM.”
In 1985 chemists created a soccer ball shaped molecule of 60 carbon atoms which they called the buckminsterfullerine or buckyball. In 1991 these were used to create tiny rolls of carbon that they called nanotubes. Nanotubes are 6 times lighter but 100 times stronger than steel. Nanotubes have been made into fibers, long threats, fabrics, plastics, computer chips, and toxic gas detectors.
Using nanotechnology, engineers have made tiny transistors, nanodiodes, biomolecular motors, a nano walking robot, a guitar, a nanoized soldering iron among many, many other things. It is expected that nanotechnology will eventually affect everything we make or grow.
Medicine is expected to be one of the first and most important use of nanotechnology. “Smart bombs” have been made that seek and destroy tumors. Nanoparticles will be created that starve cancer cells. Organs may be grown from scratch. Doctors could send out viruses know as “nano cameras” that could find out what is going on inside the body’s cells.
Computers are another promising area. Much smaller and more powerful microchips will be make. It might even be possible to make tiny computer parts inside bacteria.
Nanotechnology can also help with energy and environmental problems.
Currently, it is being used to detect and filter toxins and bacteria out of water supplies. It is already used in out catalytic converters and may soon be used to make power LEDs that will replace conventional light bulbs and use far less energy.
In the midst of all this hope and enthusiasm for nanotechnology there are those who have called for a moratorium on research, arguing that we know very little about the toxicological effects of nanoparticles. Greenpeace commissioned a study that concluded that while there might be risks from nanotechnology, the field could generate important innovations that would benefit the environment. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars did a study which indicates that the general public wants government oversight of research and development in the field of nanotechnology. They do not trust the industry to police itself.
Foresight Institute, a think tank on nanotechnology proposes six challenges that it feels the technology could meet.
1. Meeting global energy needs with clean solutions
2. Providing abundant clean water globally
3. Increasing health and longevity
4. Maximizing productivity of agriculture
5. Making information technology available everywhere
6. Enabling the development of space
These folks like to dream big. But who knows, it all may be possible.