by Andrew Boyd
Today, small is big. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
In the recent remake of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, aliens unleash a nasty swarm of nanobots — small, self-replicating machines intent on devouring whatever they run into. Nanobots are great fodder for science fiction. But could they ever be real?
Nanobots are only part of a field called nanotechnology. The prefix nano means “a billionth.” A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. That's just a little bigger than an atom. Nanotechnology is the study of technology in the realm of atoms.
But what technology? Well, pretty much anything. We can create new nanomaterials for carrying electricity or making better ceramics. Or build new nanostructures like nanoflakes to improve solar energy panels. Nanomedicine may one day extend our lives. Nanoparticles, nanosensors, nanocrystals. The prefix nano is proliferating as fast as the dot-com e once did.
Universities are busy building nano research programs. That's where the federal research dollars are. In 2001, the federal government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative to coordinate nano-research in the United States. By 2007, we as a nation were spending one-and-a-half billion dollars a year on nano-projects alone. And the amount's growing. The biggest recipients? The Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
Businesses are riding the nano-wave, too. You can already buy nano-enhanced tennis balls, skin creams, and socks that won't get so smelly. But companies are betting the biggest breakthroughs are yet to come.
So what is it that makes the nano-world so compelling? For one, physics acts differently at the atomic level. We have to rethink basic ideas like what it means to build and manufacture at such a small scale. No nano-forklifts or welding machines. We'll learn a lot by thinking little. Then there's concern for our safety. If certain types of nanotechnology pose a threat, we need to know about them.
But there's also … the dream. The thought of infinitesimally small entities performing complex tasks — with results we can see in our macro-world — is exciting. Buy a can of paint with nanobots that do the painting for you. Get an injection of nano-entities that seek out and destroy cancer. Buy nanofiber clothes that make you invisible. Scientists will tell you that possibility quickly gives way to hyperbole. But it's the hyperbole of dreamers. Will hungry nanobots ever devour the earth? I find that a little hard to swallow. But will we discover new and wonderful things as we think ever smaller? Of that, I'm certain.
A Nanobot to scale – you'd better squint!
I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
The best source of information on nanotechnology can be found at the U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative web site: http://www.nano.gov. The site both explains ongoing work in nanotechnology and provides links to many other web sites.
Picture of the nanobot with arms was taken from the Wikimedia Commons web site. All other pictures are taken from the U.S. government's National Nanotechnology Initiative web site.