Credits for cover image: screenrant.com

Nanotechnology. What is it? What can it do?

One of the coolest scenes in the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes with Tony Stark’s suit-up in Avengers: Infinity War, in which the metal fibres appear to magically grow out of nowhere, and he casually remarks: ‘It’s nanotech; do you like it?’ Other pop culture portrayals of the science include more or less every Terminator after the first, a sizable portion of the MCU, and the usual ‘indestructible nanite super-soldiers’, who are always unkillable due to the ‘army of nanobots’ inside of them. Looking at these examples, it is abundantly clear that content creators have let their imagination run wild. However, given that the field of nanotech is actually a well-researched and publicly acknowledged discipline, what does it actually include?

At its most basic definition, nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the nano-scale, i.e. at a size where the units are measured in millionths of meters. The generally accepted size range is between 1 and 100 nanometers (where 1 nanometer = 1 billionth of a meter). These particles have to be arranged into structures, which then perform certain functions at a nano-scale, where properties of materials differ significantly from those at larger scales. The US spends a billion dollars a year on funding the growth of research and entrepreneurship in the form of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which stipulates its definition as: ‘encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at the nano-scale.’ 

Artist’s interpretation of nanotech in medicine (credits to azonano.com)

The inspiration and origin of the field is sometimes attributed to the legendary physicist Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech titled ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’, which detailed methods of controlling individual atoms and broader uses of matter at the nano-scale. 15 years later, the Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi coined the term ‘nanotechnology’, delving into research about the construction and manipulation of individual particles. Eric Drexler is credited with the idea of molecular nanotechnology, which involves building molecules from the ground up by chemical synthesis. The invention of several microscopes including the atomic force microscope, the scanning probe microscope, and scanning tunneling microscope, has enabled the development of actual technology and materials, as well as being used in space exploration missions to look at the molecular composition of materials.

The question that needs answering is: ‘What does nanotech look like right now?’ There are three main forms of the technology: nanomaterials, nanochips, and nanomachines. The first has seen the bulk of innovation and practical commercial use. You may personally own several items containing nanotech, in the form of rugs, sheets, clothing, band-aids, sunscreen, cars, and the list goes on. Many of these items are covered in nano-whiskers, which are too small to let dirt particles penetrate them, which keeps the inside fabric clean. The sunscreens contain nano-particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which protect the skin from pernicious ultra-violet rays. Researchers have developed plenty of even more fascinating products which can absorb pollution, or improve solar panels. A very popular area of nanomaterials involves carbon nanotubes, which are said to have a strength to density ratio fifty times that of steel. As such, they are being adapted for uses in the construction of cars, aircraft and spacecraft, but also to replace metal cables and wires. One ‘ambitious’ project pitched by some NASA scientists is to have a carbon nanotube elevator going up to space in order to curb the costs of rockets. 

Nanotech face mask (credits: ra-apparel.net)

Nanochips are also widely used, but less well-known; they allow us to pack more transistors into integrated circuits, making computer processors faster, cheaper and more powerful. As such, nanotechnology is an important part of Moore’s Law, which states that every two years, computer processing power doubles, while costs halve. By being able to fit an increasing number of wires and fibres inside of chips, their ability to compute and process information will naturally rise. Furthermore, nanotechnology has been used in research and redevelopment related to quantum computing, by creating transistors which are only 1 molecule big. Other uses of nanochips are the OLED screens which are used in the majority of smart devices, which consist of nano-engineered molecules which emit light when stimulated with electricity.

Albeit the smallest of the three, nanomachines are probably the most exciting. There are no large-scale operational ones at the time of writing, but many institutes have either found or developed some samples. One includes a group of researchers who have made a nanomotor, which has dynamic parts as opposed to the static ones seen in commercial products, for which they were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Others have found gold nanoshells which are able to detect and destroy cancers without harming the surrounding body tissue. Even living organisms can count as nanomachines, with viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms being scrutinised for their ability to move certain parts at the nano-scale.

The foreseeable future is full of exciting potential uses of the technology. The development of nanomachines and nanobots is sure to revolutionise the world, potentially leading to the creation of better materials, more efficient machines and production of parts, as they could be assembled bottom-up (by building on the atomic level), rather than top-down (removing undesirable parts). Medical science would benefit enormously from the ability of nanobots being able to enter our systems and repair damaged tissues very accurately, or destroy and prevent other underlying health conditions. As Yuval Noah Harari sees it, the prevention of death may be possible as a direct result of nanotechnology. However, the issue of ‘grey goo’, nanobots going haywire and invisibly overriding and destroying the world has been flagged by some, citing the need for more information before delving into the unknown. In a broad sense, nanotechnology has the potential to dramatically shift the world. When and how that happens has to be left to the future. 

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