Nanotechnology refers to the science and engineering of matter at the atomic and molecular scale, normally in the range of 1 to 100 nanometers. Any materials or devices with critical dimensions that fall into this range are generally classified as nano. To put things into perspective, one nanometer is the amount a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to lift a razor to his face. Now that’s small.
What’s interesting about materials on the nano scale — contrary to popular belief — is that size really does matter. That’s because when familiar materials are reduced to nano proportions, they begin to develop odd properties. For example, plastics can conduct electricity, gold particles can appear red or green and solids can turn into liquids almost spontaneously at room temperature. While not all matter is subject to change, the manipulation of such nano change is a cornerstone of nanotechnology research, and just one of the quirky facts that you probably weren’t aware of. Here are 5 more things you didn’t know about nanotechnology:
1- 1/3 Of Americans Find Nanotechnology Morally Acceptable
A recent study conducted out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that out of 1,015 adult Americans polled, only 29.5% agreed that nanotechnology was morally acceptable. In stark contrast 54.1% of Brits, 62.7% of Germans and 72.1% of French survey participants found the technology acceptable.
Lead researcher and professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communications at the UW-Madison, Dietram Scheufele, believes that the answer to this discrepancy lies in religion. He says that Americans hold the view that nanotechnology research is akin to “playing God,” adding that a lack of understanding contributes to a perception where nanotechnology is equated with biotechnology and stem cell research. While nanotechnology does have the potential for biologic interaction, many current applications are strictly electronic.
Scheufele cites data from the World Values Survey to support his argument. The survey shows that U.S. respondents scored between eight and nine on a 10-point scale when asked how much guidance God provides in their daily lives. European respondents in the UK, Germany and France, consistently scored below five. While such indirect evidence confirms nothing, it does fuel Scheufele’s theory that religion acts as a perception filter — a filter that he fears might hinder America’s acceptance of future emerging technologies.
2- Microorganisms Can Manufacture Nanotechnology
Can we at least go one day without hearing news about bacteria or viruses? Perhaps not, but at least the news is often good. Our manipulation of the microscopic is a never-ending process, and the application of such to nanotechnology is just another prime example.
Back in 2004, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin took the ever-popular E. coli bacteria and manipulated a batch to create superconductor nanocrystals that may one day be found inside the next generation of optical computers. Tiny optical computers of the future might use optical signals rather than electrical ones to process data, and superconductor nanocrystals manufactured by bacteria will function as the light-emitting diodes (LEDS) necessary to drive optical signaling.
Viruses can also be made into nanotech factories. In 2006, MIT scientists harnessed the manufacturing abilities of small bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) to build nanowires for use in nano-size lithium-ion batteries.
There are three more items on our “5 things you didn’t know: nanotechnology” list for you to explore
3- Some nanomaterials can self-assemble
The bottom-up approach to manufacturing nanotechnologies is arguably the most exciting example of nano’s potential. Molecules can be grown under controlled conditions and influenced to come together to form various configurations (depending on their charge or other natural properties of molecular chemistry). This simple process is even being expanded to the point where the vision of a self-assembling microcomputer is no longer regarded as fiction.
Examples of complex self-assembly are widespread. Researchers in Sweden have literally grown nanowires from the ground-up, forming a complex nanoscale tree that the research team plans to fit with solar “leaves,” thus forming a sort of nano solar panel.
Beyond the simple benefits of production, the true advantage of actually growing nanomaterials from the ground-up is that they maintain consistent quality and do not succumb to imperfections that a normal manufacturing process might yield. A potential pitfall, however, is envisioned by the techno-worrisome who fear that the self-assembly processes may run astray, leading humanity toward a Terminator scenario of robo-hostility.
4- You might be wearing nanotechnology right now
Complex microcomputers built on nanotechnology might be a thing of the future, but simpler first-generation nanomaterials are literally all around us, and certainly more prevalent than you might think.
Various sunscreens, cosmetics and even clothing have benefited from the recent surge in nanotechnology. Take clothing for example. Companies such as Dockers, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Old Navy, and Perry Ellis have latched on to new technology that has been made available by the Nano-Tex company to create carefree, performance clothing items virtually stainproof.
To create this revolutionary clothing material, cotton fabrics are soaked in a solution containing trillions of nanotech fibers, which are then heated to form strong chemical bonds between the nanofibers and the cotton threads. Though the final product looks and feels unchanged, it provides incredible resistance to liquids, whether from stains or sweat, and it can even resist wrinkles.
Nanoscale enhancements to classic clothing materials like cotton will revolutionize the high-tech couture of tomorrow. Beyond clothing, stain- or dirt-proof interior furnishings such as carpets or couches will follow suit shortly. When combined with new nanotech-inspired disinfectants, the result will be a healthier and more manageable home.
5- Nanotechnology is being used against the Taliban
British Special Forces are currently using six-inch Miniature Air Vehicles (MAV) called WASPs for reconnaissance in Afghanistan. These WASPS can be fitted with C4 explosives for kamikaze hits on snipers. Meanwhile, the Israeli army is developing a miniature robot, nicknamed the “bionic hornet,” to run anti-militant operations in tight quarters. MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is just another institution striving to improve the survival of soldiers through advancements such as shock-resistant and regenerative body armor, and laser and energy-pulsing weapons. Whether you like it or not, Halo might soon become a reality.
While the future military applications of nanotechnology would totally make for one cool video game, there is global concern as to the threat of such weapons. An unstable arms race fueled by molecular manufacturing (nanotechnology) is being called by some as the single most dangerous threat to the world in the coming decades. Nanoweapons are easy to build, conceal, maintain, and deliver, which makes them almost impossible to track and regulate. Furthermore, nanoweapons become obsolete almost immediately, forcing nations toward perpetual development in an inevitable and unstable arms race, unless a conscious global understanding can be achieved — and one can only hope that the latter will be the case.