Nanotechnology is a big buzz-word in the realms of science and technology at the moment, and the trend looks set to increase exponentially. All of a sudden, nanotech is everywhere, from computer chips to bicycle frames. But many laymen are unaware of what the term actually refers to. The Wikipedia definition of ‘Nanotechnology’ sums it up as follows:
Nanotechnology is any technology which exploits phenomena and structures that can only occur at the nanometer scale, which is the scale of several atoms and small molecules. The United States’ National Nanotechnology Initiative website defines it as follows: “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.”
Common misconceptions of nanotech often stem from scenarios in science fiction stories. Arguably the best known is Eric Drexler’s ‘gray goo’ scenario, in which autonomous self-replicating nanobots run amok, converting all matter into copies of themselves in an exponential chain reaction. This worst-case scenario has largely been debunked by experts in the field, though it is accepted that it could result from a deliberately-created Doomsday device. ‘Grey goo’ is a misinformed extrapolation of the ‘universal constructor’ posited by the mathematician John von Neumann.
So what is nanotechnology actually doing in the world outside of fiction? Developments at the nanoscale are revolutionising many spheres of science and technology in a variety of ways.
Most widespread is probably its penetration into materials science. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘carbon nanotube’ is bringing the twin benefits of great strength combined with low mass to a variety of applications from the mundane to the marvellous. At the street level, there are ultra-light bicycle frames being made from nanotube composite materials. At the other end of the scale, they are making possible the sort of projects that would once have been considered ‘blue sky thinking’, like the LiftPort Group’s space elevator.
Computing is benefiting from nanoscience too. The most obvious boost to computing power stems from the increasing ability of chip manufacturers to produce semiconductor architecture at smaller resolutions than before, increasing the speed of processors while reducing their power demands and heat wastage,, and ensuring that Moore’s Law holds out for the foreseeable future. But nanotechnology also encompasses the growing field of quantum computing, which involves manipulating the behaviour of atoms and molecules at a sub-molecular level to accomplish computing feats that would be difficult or impossible to do using traditional brute-force methods.
The world of medicine is increasingly interested in the use of nanoscale phenomena to help and heal human bodies. Applications in this field range from the use of nanotubes as scaffolds for tissue to regenerate around, to the potential development of nanobots that will...