Computers used to be huge. A primary server would fill an entire building, and still have less processing power than the cellphone in your pocket. While we moved away from room-sized computers, we still see them with our own eyes. They aren’t microscopic yet. Imagine having a machine that would fit on the end of your pinky nail. Nanotechnology has been a staple in science fiction movies and books for decades. The concept of microscopic robots that can build, assemble or disassemble things at an atomic level makes for great storytelling. This fiction is well on its way to becoming science fact, though. Here’s a closer look at what nanotechnology is, how it got its start, nano research and its implications, and how scientists are using it today.
What Is Nanotechnology?
If you ask 10 different engineers, you’ll get 10 different answers, but the one thing that they can all agree on is that nanotechnology involves the study of devices and structures that are bigger than 1 nanometer in size but smaller than 100 nanometers. In other words, it’s anything that’s bigger than an atom, but smaller than a grain of sand.
Where did we even get the idea for nanotechnology?
The History of Nanotech
The concept of nanotechnology dates back to 1959. Richard Feynman’s speech that year detailed how important it was to be able to manipulate and control things on a small scale. This level of control could make it easier to understand why things happen on a molecular level.
The term nanotechnology wasn’t coined until 1974. Norio Taniguchi, a Japanese scientist, used the word in his paper about a technology that could create new products smaller than a nanometer.
The quest for functional nanotech has spread around the globe. In 1985, researchers created a buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball of carbon atoms, which later lead to the invention of carbon nanotubes. In 1990, physicists were able to spell out the acronym IBM with individual xenon atoms. Nearly every country in the world has at least one team working toward advancing the field of nanotechnology. What have they come up with so far?
Current Nanotechnology Applications
Remember those buckyballs mentioned before? Scientists have found a way to use that same structure to encapsulate medications so they can be delivered directly to a specific area of the body. Scientists found that these nonpolar carbon atoms can contain a polar molecule — in this case, H2O — and convey it to a specific location.
Nanofibers, inspired by cotton candy, make fabrics more stain- and water-resistant and can even be used to make them fire-retardant. A rotary jet spinner — similar to what is used to make cotton candy — can spin polymer thread into strands that are only 100 nanometers in diameter.
NASA is currently working on nanosensors for medical diagnosis. These sensors will recognize the distinctive odors of a variety of different conditions by merely analyzing the patient’s breath. They’re working on taking the practice of gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and shrinking it to nano size.
Scientists don’t create carbon nanotubes — they’re grown on various substrates using a catalyst to encourage their development. They can even be grown on devices rather than forming them elsewhere and placing them in their desired locations. Once they’re in place, carbon nanotubes are 400 times stronger than steel, conduct heat better than diamond and are resistant to nearly every chemical.
Nanotechnology is still in its infancy. However, each discovery and advance makes it easier to see the benefits of this microscopic technology. Where might it go in the future?
What Will Scientists Discover Next?
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The Future of Nano Research
The potential future applications of nanotechnology are nearly endless. Many of them have already found a prominent place in popular culture.
For example, scientists could inject microscopic robots into the body and programmed to repair injuries, remove cancer or even do plastic surgery from the inside, with no worry about scarring. The nanites could then pass out of the body with other solid waste or they could remain to continue maintaining the patient’s body. A set of nanites could remotely monitor a diabetic patient’s glucose levels without the need for a finger-stick.
Outside of medicine, nanites have potential in construction. How? They could use elements from the jobsite to construct a building one molecule at a time. This process applies to nearly any industry.
If nanite construction becomes possible, Earthbound applications won’t be the limit. Astronauts could send a ship full of nanites to Mars to build a habitat that will be ready for when they arrive. A nanite rocket could fly much faster than one designed to carry human passengers, giving it plenty of time to get our home-away-from-home ready for us.
Once scientists invent a method to quickly growing carbon nanotubes, they could have uses in everything from medical implants to body armor.
Self-healing structures are another potential application of nano research. Civil engineers are already working on self-healing asphalt roads, using iron filings that can heat up to melt the bitumen that holds the streets together. Adding nanotechnology could take these self-healing structures to a whole new level. Imagine never having to tear down a building because of a cracked pylon or faulty foundation. Nanites incorporated into construction could repair problems before you even realize they exist.
Nanotechnology isn’t a new concept, but we’re now reaching the stage where our technological advancements can keep up with our imaginations. This technology is still in its infancy, but we’re moving in the right direction. It might not be too long before a trip to the doctor ends with a shot of nanites to fix whatever is wrong with you. In the future, you might buy a car made of carbon nanotubes instead of carbon fiber or aluminum.
The possibilities are endless. We’re just waiting for nano research to catch up with our dreams.