THINK ON THESE: When little things mean a lot

Phillip Bond, former US Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology sees it as “truly miraculous.” After all, it can enable “the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the deaf to hear.” It can cure “AIDS, cancer, diabetes and other afflictions.” It can end hunger and “even supplement the power of our minds.”

More importantly, it will “deliver higher standards of living and allow us to live longer, healthier, more productive lives.” It also “holds extraordinary potential for the global environment through waste-free, energy-efficient production processes that cause no harm to the environment or human health.”

Bond is talking about the wonders of nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms and molecules. “Though nanotechnology is sometimes hyped to the hilt, it is no joke and its societal impacts will indeed be titanic,” observe Hope Shand and Kathy Jo Wetter in their collaborative report, Shrinking Science: An Introduction to Nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology – sometimes shortened to “nanotech” – is not a discreet industry sector but a range of techniques used to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, where size is measured in billionths of meters. A nanometer (nm), from the Greek nanos for dwarf, equals one billionth of a meter.

In one of his lectures, Nobel Prize Laureate Horst Störmer said that the nanoscale is more interesting than the atomic scale because “the nanoscale is the first point where we can assemble something – it’s not until we start putting atoms together that we can make anything useful.”

“It takes 10 atoms of hydrogen side-by-side to equal one nanometer,” write Shand and Wetter in their report. “A DNA molecule (found in cells of organisms where genetic information is stored) is about 2.5 nm wide. A red blood cell is vast in comparison: about 5,000 nm in diameter. And a human hair is about 80,000 nm thick. Everything on the nanoscale is invisible except with the aid of powerful ‘atomic force’ microscopes.”

Nanotechnology, as defined by size, is naturally very broad. “The real power of nanoscale science is the potential to converge disparate technologies that can operate at this scale. With applications spanning all industry sectors, technological convergence at the nanoscale is poised to become the strategic platform for global control of manufacturing, food, agriculture, and health,” Shand and Wetter point out.

The “raw materials” of nanotechnology are the chemical elements of the Periodic Table – the building blocks of everything, both living and non-living.

“At the nanoscale, where quantum physics rule, a material’s properties can change dramatically,” note Shand and Wetter. “With only a reduction in size (below about 100 nanometers), and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties related to electrical conductivity, elasticity, strength, color, and chemical reactivity — characteristics that the very same substances do not exhibit at the micro- or macroscales.”

For instance, aluminum – the material of soft drink cans – can spontaneously combust at the nanoscale and could be used in rocket fuel. Nanoscale copper becomes a highly elastic metal at room temperature — stretching to 50 times its original length without breaking. Zinc oxide is usually white and opaque; but at nanoscale, it becomes transparent.

“Nanotechnology is sometimes referred to as a general-purpose technology,” explains the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. “That’s because in its advanced form it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It will offer better built, longer lasting, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.”

The concepts that seeded nanotechnology were first discussed in 1959 by renowned physicist Richard Feynman in his talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he described the possibility of synthesis via direct manipulation of atoms. The term “nanotechnology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974, though it was not widely known.

Inspired by Feynman’s concepts, Dr. K. Eric Drexler independently used the term “nanotechnology” in his 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, which proposed the idea of a nanoscale “assembler” which would be able to build a copy of itself and of other items of arbitrary complexity with atomic control.

Nano in medicine

“Whatever you call it, the use of nanotechnology in the field of medicine could revolutionize the way we detect and treat damage to the human body and disease in the future, and many techniques only imagined a few years ago are making remarkable progress towards becoming realities,” the website notes.

As a new technology, there are some issues and concerns to be considered. This is particularly true in medicine. “The majority of current commercial applications of nanotechnology to medicine is geared towards drug delivery to enable new modes of action, as well as better targeting and bioavailability of existing medicinal substances,” according to an expert of group of the European Medicines Evaluation Agency Source (“Reflection paper on nanotechnology-based medicinal products for human use”).