Nanotech Starts Small...

When you mention "nanotechnology" people will most likely counjure a futuristic vision of "nanobots" zooming around the place and generally being very helpful. While nanobots are a long way off (some say 50 years, some say never), nanotechnology should start to bring some exciting developments within most of our lifetimes.

Tom Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM research, estimates that the typical time lag from lab discovery to commercial deployment is 10 to 15 years for hardware such as the Giant Magnetoresistive Effect (utilised in modern hard drives).

(The picture to the right shows nano-gear next to a dust mite)

Recent Developments

Nano-Glue
Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Akron have used their knowledge of what makes geckos stick to create a carpet of super-sticky carbon nanotubes that could form the basis for future types of adhesives. In this case, science has even surpassed nature by producing bundles of nanotubes with an adhesive power 200 times greater than that of the gecko foot hairs.

Power Plastic
Konarka has developed light-activated power plastics that are made by printing conducting polymers and nano-engineered materials onto plastic. The resulting material can be easily integrated into devices, systems and structures to provide them with their own renewable power generation capabilities.

Quantum Wire
NASA will pay Rice University $11 million over the next four years to develop an experimental power cable made from carbon nanotubes. The cable, also known as a Quantum Wire, would theoretically conduct electricity up to 10 times better than traditional copper wire and weigh one-sixth as much. Scientists believe quantum wires could make spacecraft much lighter and more powerful, and may lead to faster computers and other commercial applications.

World's Smallest Robot
Dartmouth researchers have contributed to the miniaturizing trend by creating the world's smallest untethered, controllable robot. Their extremely tiny machine is about as wide as a strand of human hair, and half the length of the period at the end of this sentence. About 200 of these could march in a line across the top of a plain M&M

Non-fogging Glass
A group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may have found a permanent solution to the problem of fogging glass. The team has developed a unique polymer coating - made of silica nanoparticles - that they say can create surfaces that never fog. The transparent coating can be applied to eyeglasses, camera lenses, ski goggles and even bathroom mirrors, they say.

Future Developments

Scientists are currently working with single atoms to try to develop, amongst other things, molecule-sized computers, tiny cancer-fighting robots that travel the bloodstream ... and trousers that resist stains. Ok, the last one isn't quite as groundbreaking and is already available (US only).

Worries?
Heard of grey goo? Doesn't sound too worrying does it? Just some goo that's grey, right? No, wrong. Grey Goo is term first coined by Eric Drexler in his book, Engines of Creation, to describe a possible event bringing life on this planet to an end. It invloves self-replicating nanobots consuming everything on Earth while building more and more nanobots. It hasn't yet been proven that Grey Goo could ever actually exist, in fact, Eric Drexler himself has tried, and failed, to retract his hypothesis so that the nano-community can focus on more realistic threats.

Some of the new concerns center on metal-containing nano-materials such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Compounds like these have always been used as sunblocks, (the thick solid-colored lotions you see on lifeguards' noses) but once mixed into the lotions at a nano level, they turn translucent. Scientists fear that if the metallic atoms in these lotions get into the body, they'll create free radicals and undergo oxidation reactions, literally pulling cells apart in a fashion similar to the way alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking destroy cells.

Nanotech does promises many benefits - from better products to, potentially, new ways to cure disease. But along with those benefits come risks, largely unknown ones.

More from...
Wikipedia on Nanotechnology
National Nanotechnology Initiative
The Royal Society on Nanoscience