Sunday, December 26, 2010


Industrial manufacturing has, for the past two hundred years, mostly been concerned with macro-scale objects. The specifications for our cars, bridges, homes, and widgets are almost always in familiar dimensions that we can see or feel. Partially this is out of necessity: until recently, we simply lacked the ability for more precise specifications. Millimeters are the smallest units of length we deal with in our everyday lives, so making our products accurate to this level was typically good enough. This is quickly changing.

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating objects on nanometer (one-billionth of a meter) scales. At this level, it is possible to position individual atoms and molecules where we want them. One of the best-known early demonstrations of this concept came in 1989, when IBM scientists essentially used molecule-sized tongs to carefully pick up and position 35 xenon atoms to spell IBM. Since then, our ability to work with tiny objects has improved every year, and shows no sign of slowing down. One of the most useful applications to date is in computing: Nearly all modern computer chips now use transistors that are only a few nanometers across.

Other applications of nanotechnology are starting to reach the market. Stain-proof and water-proof clothes have been available for a few years now. The cotton fibers in the clothes are attached to tiny nanomachines which actively repel foreign substances like water. Nanoparticles have found their way into commercial sunscreens as well, making them much more effective by forming a thin screen at the molecular level.

But today’s applications are just the tip of the iceberg of nanotechnology’s potential. As our ability to manipulate tiny structures improves, so will the range of possibilities available to us. Mature nanotechnology will grant us access to a veritable cornucopia of goods. Graphene – an arrangement of carbon atoms first created in 2004 – is 100 times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, but as flexible as plastic. It is one of the thinnest, lightest, strongest substances ever discovered, and may find its way into many common products in the coming decades, making computers faster, batteries better, food fresher, solar cells more efficient, and vehicles and bridges lighter. Two scientists took home the 2010 Nobel Physics Prize for their work with graphene.

Another recently-discovered nanoparticle, the gold nanosphere, may one day prove to be an effective cancer treatment. Its talent lies in its tiny size and its ability to conduct immense amounts of heat. By attaching a piece of protein to a gold nanosphere, it is capable of seeking out cancer cells and attaching itself. Once it has attached itself, a doctor can flash a burst of infrared light. This causes the gold nanosphere to heat up to extreme temperatures, killing the cell to which it is attached. If it withstands FDA trials, it could become a standard treatment for cancer, since it results in far less collateral damage than chemotherapy.

But new substances and chemicals are not the only benefit of nanotechnology. In the more distant future, there is no physical barrier preventing the development of microscopic robots at the nano-scale. These nanobots could radically transform our world – patrolling the environment to clean up pollution one molecule at a time, keeping intruding pathogens or harmful mutations out of our bodies, assembling anything we want from a hamburger to a piece of jewelry in front of our eyes, or (if proper precautions aren’t taken) consuming the entire world and reducing it to gray goo. In 1995, the late nanotechnology grandfather Richard Smalley wrote, “The list of things you could do with nanotechnology reads like much of the Christmas Wish List of our civilization.” As we master the ability to manipulate the world at the atomic level, we must also master the ability to prevent the technology from destroying us.

By 2026 – At least one treatment employing nanoparticles is routinely used in the United States to treat cancer.
By 2035 – Graphene is routinely used in structures (e.g. bridges and buildings) that need to be strong and light.
By 2050 – Nanobots can patrol the cells of our bodies, looking for any unwelcome intruders or mutations.
By 2055 – Molecular assemblers are able to produce nearly any macro-scale product we need, provided that they have the raw materials.

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