By Senayt Nur
Nanotechnology: could it actually solve our problems or turn out to be a new one?
Nano is 100 nm in size, one Nanometer is 10-9 meters or about 3 atoms long. By definition, the nano world is placed between the atom and the solid molecules. “Nano-technology mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule.” This interface has been used by chemists for a while, and currently with the assistance of physicists, they [chemists] are able to understand and even manipulate it in order to create manageable and more complex structures than the ones found in nature.
According to The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology is defined as: “The science, engineering, and technology related to the understanding and control of matter at the length scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers. However, nanotechnology is not merely working with matter at the Nanoscale, but also research and development of materials, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions due to their Nanoscale dimensions or components”.
Nanotechnology studies phenomenon and substances in micro molecular levels that will allow biochemists, microbiologists, chemists and, very recently, biomedical experts to study and manipulate atoms on an individual level. By mechanically manipulating, specifically arranging and designing molecules, the experts of the fields mentioned above will have the ability to transfer a larger amount of energy within a very limited space.
Back on December 29, 1959, the founding father of nanotechnology, Richard Feynman, gave a lecture titled “there is plenty of room at the bottom” with the intent of inspiring the conceptual beginning of the field. Even though the lecture wasn’t recognized till the 1990s, at the time Feynman explained if we had the ability to see molecules interact directly we can solve most of the fundamental questions in biology as well as other fields of science. And by manipulating molecules on an individual atomic level we would be able to create a more powerful form of synthetic chemistry.
How do we make macromolecules measured in 100s of nanometers or less with unique properties? Furthermore, can we control the structure and composition of such synthetic polymer molecules on the nm scale in order to control their properties? Technically speaking, humans didn’t create such structures and these structures are plenty in nature and are the key factors in the evolution of plants and animals; we merely discover them. And many natural Nanoscale materials, such as catalysts, porous materials, certain minerals, soot particles, etc., have their unique properties particularly because of the Nanoscale features.
Eventually, man has found artificial ways to operate on Nano molecules. Despite the various debates on the terminology and nature of the science of Nanotechnology, there are two widely practiced approaches. The first approach allows control of the complex object by degrading and carving a large matter down to Nano scale in a precise pattern. In addition, by arranging them in a particular order, now we have started to predict their behaviors. This process is called “Top-Down Nanotechnology”. The other approach is directed at the building, controlling and manufacturing the Nano structure from the atom and molecule level, and this is called “bottom up” approach.
Current application of nanotechnology, as described by J. Clarence Davieson in his 2009 report entitled ‘Oversight of Next Generation Nano Technology’, is mostly passive. Nanotechnology is only added to other, already functional, programs to enhance the particular application’s performance; hence it is called bottom up approach.
The leading fields of the technology, currently, seem to concentrate on Biotechnology and Genetics. And there is a sounding reason for that; Nanotechnology can help us to understand a little bit more about our nature. It has the potential to light on the topic of how we go from a single fertilized egg with 23 pairs of chromosomes and a basic DNA string consisting four molecules; adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine, with only 64 possible combinations that yield 20 amino acids into a complex, walking, talking, and thinking animal with a soul as some refer the human being. Nanotechnology can certainly become handy in the creation of additional synthetic amino acids. Nature has only 20 types of amino acids but, we now are on the verge of creating new and essential amino acids with unique criteria and properties. If we create such amino acids, it is logical to give them noble functions which in return can empower us to single out genetic and metabolic defects and eventually correct harmful mutations that accumulate to cause cancer or any undesired phenomenon.
With the newly gained understanding of biological processes, Nanotechnology could help in the delivery of better health benefits and a longer and disease-free lifespan that the likes of which Ray Kurzweil talks about in his book “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”.
The other major fields where Nanotechnology is taped massively are the ones related to Robotics, Computer Science, Communication, and Artificial Intelligence. Nanotechnology, in the mentioned fields, focuses on the progress of information processing, improvements in computing speed, and price performance.
Advancement in the active application of Nanotechnology in computer science will help in allowing massive amounts of data collection, massive serial processing of data using smaller yet faster hardware, and super-fast and always-on worldwide communication. This will bridge the already narrowing distance in the global community which could theoretically lead to a future where information is infallibly available to everyone all the time. Other active involvements include the new and innovative approach towards Cognitive Sciences that could significantly improve many aspects of human intelligence.
In general, by placing nanotechnology as an active leading field or passive added technology, the future of the fields mentioned above could be brighter than we expect. Nanotechnology is not a faraway technology and some of its apparent applications in the existing industry foretell the time for its large scale implementation is way closer. And most importantly due to the significantly decreasing price of processing power, more of Nanotechnology’s future will be applied to individual problems.
Davies, J. Clarence. “Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology.” (2009).
Junk, Andreas, and Falk Riess. “From an idea to a vision: There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” American journal of physics 74.9 (2006): 825-830.
National Research Council. Small wonders, endless frontiers: A review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. National Academies Press, 2002, P. 5.
N. Taniguchi, “On the Basic Concept of ‘Nano-Technology’,” Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering. 1974
Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking Press, 2005.
From the editors of iCog labs: There will be two follow-up articles discussing the current state of Nanotechnology and its specific applications in everyday life. Senayt, an avid reader of the subject and a medical student at St Paul Hospital will indulge her curiosity about the challenges facing the future of nanotechnology and what is being done in the world and more specifically in her country, Ethiopia.