Friday, January 12, 2007


An ant carries a one millimetre square microchip in its mandibles, illustrating the work that is being done in nanotechnology.
Photo: Reuters

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter on an atomic or molecular scale. So what, you might say. Well, it's going to change the world.

Nanotechnology offers tremendous potential benefits in medicine, materials and manufacturing.

It is hard to fathom just how small the nanoscale is - if the one-millimetre interval on your ruler was scaled up in size to a kilometre, the nano range would be equal to the width of your hand or smaller. At this scale you can, in theory, build things out of individual atoms. It is seriously tiny.

But smaller, as scientists have discovered, also means faster, cheaper and lighter. Nanotechnology will pave the way for a host of products, some already with us, that will transform our world. And, as alluded to in Crichton’s novel "Prey" (one of my favourites), there are concerns over the safety of nanotechnology though its advocates argue that such dangers will never occur anywhere other than in the realm of science fiction.


Glass has been coated with nano-structured wax particles to create self-cleaning windows. Nanoglass can also be designed to better trap heat.

Sunscreen is another example. Zinc cream is a very visible white coating, unlike a nano-zinc cream in which the zinc particles are so small you can’t see them. It’s more effective, too.

Mercedez-Benz have built cars with nanotech scratchproof finish.

Japanese researchers are using nanotech "buckytubes" that will allow high-resolution, flat-panel television.

Energy is another field ripe for nanotech takeover.

Flat panel lights, where there are walls of light to replace light bulbs.

In the future, we will be drinking desalinated water purified through nanofilters; nanowiring may be fine enough to connect severed nerves in an injured spine, restoring partial movement for quadraplegics and paraplegics; biosensors with nanodetectors will protect cities from gas or viral attack. In defence, soldiers will wear T-shirt-weight material that can stop a bullet; nano-engineered explosives will be vastly more powerful; lightweight tanks will have superstrong nanoarmour.

Some people believe we may go further and build "nanomachines" fully autonomous, self-replicating devices able to build endless copies of themselves out of molecules and atoms from normal materials. Hence the talk of "nanobots" zipping around our bloodstream, as in the film Fantastic Voyage, curing diseases. Or a swarm of nanobots repairing the ozone layer, or cleaning up oil slicks, or attacking an invading army.

But Crichton’s book warns about a swarm of out-of-control nanobots replicating themselves exponentially and posing a threat to mankind.

However, in order to create machines of that size, you’ve got a problem with self-repair. There’s very few atoms involved in some of the features at that level and they tend to break up very readily. They’re very fragile.

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