How deep a root can something one one-hundredth the width of a human hair possibly forge? You would be surprised, for biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers are all involved in the study of substances at this minute scale. How so?
The discipline is nanotechnology, and it is the basis of an entire train of thought based on evaluating the ways different substances can act at the nanoscale which, while not the smallest possible scale (atoms, after all, are significantly smaller), it is the smallest scale at which something can begin to be assembled.
When Intel co-founder Gordon Moore declared what would eventually become known as Moore’s Law – the expected exponential growth in the amount of transistors that could be contained on a single computer chip – he concluded that ultimately the pieces of this elaborate puzzle would need to dramatically reduce in size over time, so as not to become unwieldy. But even Moore didn’t realize how small, nor did he extend his theory outside of his singular expertise.
As you read this article, scientists are experimenting and evaluating substances at the nano-level, hoping to learn their properties at this size and how we might be able to utilize those resources in various applications. Sure, Moore’s engineers work intricately with nano-size wires and pieces to create the smallest possible microprocessors. But at the same time, doctors are studying any possible benefits to using nanoparticles in medical applications.
Nobody is quite sure where nanotechnology will lead exactly, but there is relative certainty that its advancement will lead somewhere significant.
A quick look around
We’ve established the size (or lack thereof) of the technology itself, but what can really be accomplished working with devices one one-millionth the size of a pinhead?
First, we need to be clear that we’re talking about technology in the general sense of advancement, rather than the oft-interpreted meaning of technology as computers, electronics and the like. To make this point clear, let’s examine some ways that nanotechnology is already being used.
Sunscreens contain zinc or titanium oxide. We’ve all seen beach combers or lifeguards with bright white splotches from their sunscreen. But this occurs less frequently than it used to, because these components are now handled via microparticles. The smaller particles are more readily absorbed by skin, eliminating the white tinge.
Those same zinc oxide nanoparticles are also used in clothing, providing not only improved protection from damaging UV rays, but offering resistance to water, stains and wrinkles.
While scratch-resistant coatings are not based on nanoparticles themselves, engineers found that adding aluminum silicate nanoparticles to their coatings increased resistance to chipping, pitting and scratching. And bandages using nanoparticles of silver are able to kill harmful cells, aiding wound recovery.
Yet as fascinating as it is to look at where we stand currently with respect to nanotechnology, it’s more stunning to consider where it can take us in the future.
Substances at the nanoscale behave erratically and, according to standard laws of physics, inappropriately. A material unable to carry electricity in a larger form can become a semiconductor when its size is reduced; the alteration of surface area by reduction in molecular size can change the melting point; objects at the nanoscale can pass through substances other objects can’t. The possibilities are seemingly endless, which creates boundless hope and imagination.
Knowing no bounds
The U.S. National Science Foundation summed this up succinctly: Imagine a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread; Or a box no larger than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress; Or materials much lighter than steel that possess 10 times as much strength.
The above may sound far fetched, but best-selling author, inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil proposed in the U.K.’s The Guardian last year that “within a couple of decades, we will have ‘nanobots’ in our blood stream, basically small robots the size of blood cells, that will keep us healthy at the cellular and molecular level,” noting that scientists at MIT, his alma mater, “have microscopic devices that can scout out cancer cells in the bloodstream and destroy them.”
Kurzweil also projects that nanotechnology will also result in extremely inexpensive and highly efficient solar panels that will, within 20 years, completely replace fossil fuels.
Will these expectations come to fruition? There are no guarantees, but there is a widespread hope.
For the technology is small, but the vision is not.