Nanotechnology the Science of the Small

Could the local water works be harnessed to fuel your car? Scientists think they just may. Researchers at Sandia National Labs intend to complete development of a prototype solar cell that will convert plain water into combustible fuel! They have already demonstrated concept feasibility. Such cells, along with water, could replace oil as an automotive fuel of choice. Is this for real? How is it possible?

Water is number one fighting fires. But what if we break it down into its component parts? You remember science class, right? That’s where they taught us water is made up of 2 atoms of hydrogen combined with a single atom of oxygen. Hydrogen, the most abundant element on earth, is highly explosive. Oxygen is necessary for any type of combustion. In their singular states the components of water are a burning recipe for fuel.

Sandia scientists have also developed a robot that can move, pick up, and drop a payload. Not a big deal you say? What if I told you that 20 of these androids can stand side-by-side across the width (not length) of a human hair; impressed now? Called motor proteins’ these soldiers can be designed to seek each other out and self-assemble in predictable patterns. Nature self-assembles everything in predictable patterns, both flora and fauna. We are just now beginning to learn mother’s secrets.

The Science of the Small
Hail the world of Nano-technology, the science of the small. You’ll be hearing this word “nano” a lot. From the Greek word for dwarf, you just can’t get any smaller. How small? Well, it would take 80,000 nano-meters to equal the width of that human hair we just discussed. Now that’s small.

This science allows us to manipulate at the atomic level for the first time.
Re-arrange the atoms of water, dirt and air, and we can create rice, or corn. If we re-arrange the atoms of coal, we can create diamonds. Or should I say, this is being done, now! Boston based Apollo Diamonds creates what it calls cultured diamonds’ that are virtually “indistinguishable” from mined diamonds. They are real. Jewelers can’t tell the difference!

Diamonds are a $60 billion industry annually. This technology promises to lower the price of diamonds by at least a third. What implications does this have for the tightly held global diamond trade? Can gold be far behind? And will this have implications for international currency exchange?

Amazingly a survey of U.S. adults found more than half confessing no knowledge of nanotechnology at all. Only 16% of those surveyed claim “some” familiarity with the topic. Observers of nanotechnology disagree as to whether or not this is a single industry. But none disagree on the effect it will ultimately have on our lives, indeed on the very length of our lives.

The Fountain of Youth?
Just as we now have synthetic motor oils, soon we will be able to create synthetic red and white blood cells, even replacements for ailing organs.
The implications for medicine and for life are enormous. Nanotechnology and medicine will be one and the same. And we may not have long to wait. In 2003, an NYU professor shared a top ten list of hurdles nanotechnology would have to surmount to be fully viable. Since then, three of these ten have been conquered.

Some of the greatest potential lies in gene therapy. Nano-genes will replace diseased ones with genetically correct copies eliminating genetic based diseases. Eventually we can even reverse the effects of cell damage attributed to aging. This could increase human life expectancy tenfold! Do you think this is science fiction? Read on!

The Methuselah Foundation encourages research into the causes and control of aging. They award prizes for research in this area. Transgenic mice have already been developed to possess higher than usual levels of the antioxidant enzyme catalase’. Cells employ catalase to eliminate free radicals which cause cell damage resulting in aging, as well as cancers. The genetically corrected mice have life spans 20% longer than their control mice brethren. Imagine adding 15 or 20 healthy years to your life!

Nano-bacteria could clear blood-borne infections in minutes rather than the weeks it takes for antibiotics. Scientists at NEC are reportedly developing a fast bio-nano’ chip to conduct a complete blood analysis in little more than 60 minutes. (Today’s med labs utilizing gel blocks take longer than 24 hours). Their chip recognizes proteins known to be present before a disease manifests itself. These diagnostic nano-grains bind with targeted proteins, causing an intended signal reaction. If trials go well, they’ll be in use within 5 years. Comprehensive health assessments utilizing this nano-technology could cost as little as $100.

Chemotherapy involves poisoning a patient’s body with toxic medication in a race to kill cancer cells before the cancer kills the patient. Serious side effects come from the solutions used to dilute the cancer killing agents. Nano-medicines have very high surface to volume ratios, resulting in far fewer and milder side effects. Greater tolerance for these nano-oncologics allow for dense doses delivered at tighter intervals.

Nobel Prize winning chemist Rick Smalley (1943-2005) was fond of posing the question, “Am I living in the last generation to die of cancer, or the first generation to be saved by nanotechnology?” We’re that close!

Super Computers
Nano-materials promise computers running 200 times faster than today’s swiftest chips. Researchers at the University of Illinois have already fabricated such nano-processors. Employing current technology a micro-chip grows more crowded to run at ever faster speeds, the heat generated threatens to melt the entire silicon based circuit.

The ability to immediately absorb and process vast amounts of data creates opportunities only imaginable previously: significant increases in reaction times for defense systems; the allocation of road/air space for traffic management; even preventing autos from colliding with each other.

Materials First
While the greatest ultimate impact comes from the fields of medicine and biology, it is in materials and chemicals that the first fruits are being picked. Everything can be made better through restructuring, or nano-structuring: lighter, stronger, cheaper. Materials that don’t exist can be created with new and unique properties. As the initial cost of these materials falls, broader uses will naturally result.

Tennis rackets and golf clubs on the market today from both Wilson and Babolat are now twice as strong. Motorola is reportedly developing a 40″ HDTV flat screen using nano-materials that will retail for only $400. Rechargeable batteries that take only one minute to regain 80% capacity have been invented by Toshiba. The unique properties of the nano-materials used rapidly accept the charge without any deterioration to the electrode. A planned launch will target hybrid autos. But this technology applies equally to your cell phone and laptop. How long does it take to recharge these now?

In the nanotech world, if you can imagine it, you can create it: automotive panels that won’t dent; paints that won’t scratch, peel, or fade; sunscreens that truly are; stain-proof fabrics that actually change shade for body temperature control; odorless disposable diapers; fire-proof building materials. The future is bright indeed.

Investors Gun Shy
More than 30 nations have provided seed funding to ensure their people aren’t left behind. The U.S. Nanotechnology Initiative federal allocation in 2006 topped $1 billion. Forward looking states are jockeying to lure Nano-companies, carroting of course with tax breaks.

Despite all this opportunity, investors still reeling from the dot-com days, are sticking to the sidelines, cept some far sighted venture capitalists. Smelling potential, private investment flows are now more than three times greater than the federal outlay.

In the dot-com days all it took to offer an IPO was a desk top PC and a carefully worded business plan determined to take advantage of the “information synergies paradigm.” Not so with nanotechnology. This requires real multi-discipline scientific know how from extensive research and testing. These inventions and innovations are clearly patentable. To date some 3,800 patents have been granted with another 1,700 pending. No college dorm room operations here.

As you can imagine the potential for investors in the right places are colossal. But be careful, some companies are adding nano’ to their name whether they have anything to do with it or not. Where the money is, so too will be the tricksters.