Nanotechnology seems to me to be the most potentially
"world changing" field of research going on today.
Despite this, it is far from the public eye - hardly anyone has
even heard of it! Here is a brief introduction.
What's all this about then?
Molecular Nanotechnology is the heading under which goes the
capability to assemble things molecule by molecule.
Traditionally, things have been manufactured by cutting and
scraping and bending. When nanotechnology matures, things will be
built by molecular machines called assemblers, much in
the same way that plants and animals are put together by
molecular machines called proteins!
The ability to build things on a molecular scale will give us
what the human race has craved since the first caveman to strike
a piece of flint - absolute control over matter. Firstly, very
small things can be made. Computers can be made several orders of
magnitude smaller and faster, storage devices can have a single
molecule per bit of data. Secondly, large things can be made with
near perfect structures. Tall buildings and long bridges can be
built out of a single piece of the strongest material available -
diamond. The diamond is assembled by physically picking up carbon
atoms and slotting them into place. Anything that can be designed
on a computer can be prototyped instantly - in much the same way
that software is designed, with small changes being implemented,
then tested - all within a few minutes. The cost of manufacturing
will become insignificant. Design costs will become all
Exactly what can be done with nanotechnology?
Here are a few example applications. The applications are very
wide ranging because being able to create any structure
imaginable in an instant is a very useful thing!
- Nanocomputers - we're already approching
the limit of what can be done in the way of
miniaturisation with current techniques. Assembling
computers with nanotechnology will mean we can make them
as small as we like.
- Solar roads - we'll be able to make
solar cells strong enough to surface roads. Enough solar
energy for everyone, and no need for space wasteing solar
- Smart clothes - the fibres of clothes
can be made with tiny computers and motors built into
them. A network of simple computers can respond to the
wearer's posture, the air temperature and situation,
changing the texture of clothes to suit. Clothes to keep
you cool when it's hot, warm when it's cold, and dry when
it rains -not to mention the ability to change size
according to the wearer - will become possible.
- Video wallpaper - LCD-like screens can
be made at much higher resolutions and be more robust,
being built into ordinary surfaces.
- Nanomedicine - Tiny machines can be
built to recognise viruses and cancer cells, and seek and
- Cheap space flight - Space flight is so
expensive because spacecraft are so expensive to build.
Instead, they can be built far lighter, more
sophisticated and re-useable, and in large numbers.
- Subterranean travel - Huge efficient
digging machines can be built in large numbers, creating
a global subway system. The walls of the tunnels can be
made airtight and magnetic trains can run at spacecraft
speeds in the vacuum.
- A clean environment- Molecular machines
can be built that clean up toxic waste in the soil - much
as micro-organisms break down natural waste. Products
such as packaging that usually make such a mess can be
programmed to degrade into harmless substances after a
- Reconfigurable houses - The walls of
your house can move around to create different sized
rooms, the floor can re-shape itself into a variety of
different types of furniture.
It all sounds a bit far fetched to me...
There is nothing to suggest that nanotechnology simply can't
be done. None of the above ideas break any physical laws.
Biological systems like trees and people are already assembled
molecule by molecule by tiny molecular machines.
Okay, but it won't happen in my lifetime...
Major breakthroughs are not "just around the
corner." However, real research is going on today, and real
progress has been made. The longest estimate I have come across
so far is 30 years for mature nanotechnology implementing the
sorts of ideas listed above. Once simple nano-machines can be
built, they can be used to make more complex ones, and on it will
go. Some research going on today includes:
- Use of atomic force microscopes (AFMs) at IBM
in Zurich to place individual molecules on a surface.
They have built the world's smallest abacus with C60
atoms for beads, and are aiming to create storage devices
with atoms for 1s and an absence of atoms for 0s.
- A company called Zyvex
in Texas have set out to create the world's first
molecular assembler with a timescale of five to ten
- A Center for Nanotechnology at the University of
Washington, located in Seattle, opened on March 6, 1998.
- The University of Toronto and Energenius Inc. has opened
Centre for Advanced Nanotechnology.
Fair enough, but I want to know more!
The following are good places to start to find out more about
- I have set up a
nanotechnology forum on Dejanews.
- The Foresight
Institute was set up by Dr. K. Eric Drexler to
educate people about the applications and implications of
nanotechnology. They have published two of his books,
the Future - an excellent introduction into the ideas
behind and applications of nanotech. Many of the ideas
here come directly from the book. They will also keep you
up to date with the latest news.
- There is a new monthly magazine, Nanotechnology Magazine,
whose web page contains much useful information.
- The Xerox page.