Originally published May 5, 2005
The focus of this article is to present and discuss the basics of Nanotechnology, in which we cover some of the different fields of Nanotechnology and just what can be explored in this tiny but vast world. We also speculate a bit on where each of the areas is heading, and what impact that area might have on computing technology. Like it or not, Nanotechnology is the next BIG THING.
Different Types of Nanotechnology
There are many different types of Nanotechnology available. In general they can be classified into the following categories: carbon nanotube, optical (or particle-wave based), crystalline, DNA, and quantum (see “The Age of the Spiritual Machine”, by Ray Kurzweil). Each of these categories has a significant impact in the study of Nanotechnology. You see, Nanotechnology is not just technology. It is the study of atoms, and the world as we know it. It is the ability to look deep into what and how basic elements are created and how they can be manipulated to benefit mankind.
Of course, like any other “technology” or societal advancement, it can be turned into destructive forces. This advancement is no different. Like it or not, Nanotechnology is the next BIG THING. So what’s the big deal about these areas? How do they differ, why should I care? To explain the answers to these questions will take a life-time, and I hope that through this article many useful thoughts and understandable ideas will emerge. For now, let’s take a look at some of the basics from each of these categories.
What is a carbon nanotube? An oversimplified analogy might be that of a vacuum tube; however the “tube” is made of carbon molecules instead of glass. The carbon nanotube can contain other substances, any substance that is desired which doesn’t interact with carbon molecules. Since carbon is the most non-interactive molecule, it becomes the logical choice to be a container. Once the nanotube is filled with its payload, it can be sealed in a number of different ways—but in general, a breakable bond is setup between one part of the tube, and another (between multiple carbon elements). Of course the tubes, can be strung together to create “wire-like” properties. The surprising thing is they are not limited to moving just electricity! They can also contain any number of other substances and move those along the tube as well. See this excellent white paper: on carbon nanotubes and its uses.
Suppose you had a radio active chemical, like a cancer fighting drug—to deliver to a tumor deep inside the body. Does it really make sense to treat the entire body with ever increasing doses of this drug? Or is it better to disperse the chemical directly to the tumor, and release the chemical into the “bad cells.” This is one example and proposed use of carbon nanotubes. The tubes can be filled with the chemotherapy drugs, and sealed. The drugs can be tainted to “attract” but not bond to, specific cell structures, i.e., those that are cancerous—throughout the body.
These nanotubes can then be dispersed in very small doses through an injection into the bloodstream. They travel the body and attach to the cancerous cells. Then, with either ultraviolet light, or light from another wave-length, sometimes a sound wave, the carbon nanotubes bond is broken (it responds to a certain frequency), and the medicine is delivered on the spot. This is the typical medical scenario found in the bio and drug company Nanotechnology writings. Today they are working on perfecting the delivery and release mechanisms. It will be a few years before the FDA can approve this type of technology.
There are other uses for carbon nanotubes, which include housing liquid structures that change color when activated by electron beams. Thus, acting like super-small vacuum tubes, they can represent on/off, and various levels between. When attached to a computing circuit, they can change their chemical representation by shifting electrons to higher or lower orbital. In other words, here is where we start to see items like the “auto-frosting glass” that are available for public purchase today. The carbon nanotubes form the containment structure and don’t conduct electricity. But because the nanotubes are hexagonal shape, and have “holes”, the contained chemicals within can be shifted into different materials through the application of electricity.
Optical or Particle Wave Based Nanotechnology
This is a much different method of computation. It involves the notions that particles can act as both waves and atoms at the same time. The best or simplest explanation here, is the notion of light, or light waves if you will. Think back to high school physics and chemistry (OUCH!). Remember the photon? It’s both a particle and a wave at the same time. Ever hear of Schrödinger’s Cat? That’s right, the theory that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time due to particle waves and quantum mechanics. Nanotechnology is exploring the use of particle wave exchanges for multiple computation abilities; in other words, exchanging electrons (without wires) between computational devices by creating standing waves from one device, passing the waves through walls, through space, and around the world. This amounts to instant communication, no wires. They’re also investigating wireless power for the same reasons.
This particular technology is developing at a slower rate and is more difficult to produce because it relies on super-conductivity, the ability to manipulate individual electrons on atoms, and pass waves without interference or alteration. This is just in terms of computational ability. When we look at the use of Nanotechnology applied to optical devices, the range is much broader and more successful. There are coatings for glass that make it virtually indestructible, Nanotechnology coatings for fiber cables making them more bendable, as well as more resistant to loss of signal, and revolutionary new optical filtering capacities and light emitting capacities.
The use of optical Nanotechnology in bioinformatics to stain cells and watch DNA computation is incredible compared to the old “dying the cell” methods. There are tremendous advances for light-emitting nano compounds that help us dive deeper and allow us to better understand our tiny world.
Nanocrystals are structures which basically are attached in a lattice or crystalline shape (like ice for instance, that’s a crystalline form of water when it freezes). These structures (because of their lattice shape) are extremely strong. For example, a 3-inch-thick slab of ice can be much stronger than a 3-inch-thick piece of red-wood. Nanocrystals are not yet used as computational devices, but in the future, this may change. We may actually come to have something like a crystalline computing device that reacts to sound waves and changes colors without any visible power-source.
"Metal nanocrystals might be incorporated into car bumpers, making the parts stronger, or into aluminum, making it more wear resistant. Metal nanocrystals might be used to produce bearings that last longer than their conventional counterparts, new types of sensors and components for computers and electronic hardware.
Nanocrystals of various metals have been shown to be 100 percent, 200 percent and even as much as 300 percent harder than the same materials in bulk form. Because wear resistance often is dictated by the hardness of a metal, parts made from nanocrystals might last significantly longer than conventional parts."
Another use for nanocrystals is to house anti-bacterial material without drug interaction and without chemical bonding at the site. For instance, Smith & Nephew produces Nanotechnology crystalline structures with silver that helps to eliminate bacterial infection. Smith & Nephew also markets an antimicrobial dressing covered with nanocrystalline silver (A patented Technology of NUCRYST Pharmaceuticals). The nanocrystalline coating of silver rapidly kills a broad spectrum of bacteria in as little as 30 minutes.
Ok, so here’s the deal: we’re currently inundated with incredible Nanotechnology—why aren’t we seeing all the benefits today? We are, we just don’t know it. To paraphrase an advertising line from 3M: Nanotechnology doesn’t make the products, it makes the products better.
This is of particular interest to me. It holds incredible promise, yet at the same time—incredible risks. DNA Nanotechnology or computing is the ability of man to understand, map, manipulate, replicate and alter strands of DNA within molecules. Of course, each cell is comprised of many DNA strands. The cell with RNA, and enzymes can perform on its own like a mini-computer. As I wrote in one of my recent Nanotechnology articles (DNA Computing), it has been done already, by DARPA in 1999. They managed to search terabytes of information in under 10 seconds in a DNA solution within a beaker. I would suggest reading DNA computing devices.
Again, What Does this Mean to Me?
Well that depends. If you’re in the world of fabrication of electronic devices then it means a lot to you today (or it should). If you’re the CEO or an executive in one of these organizations, then I would strongly urge your company to invest in such technology, or you’ll be left behind the 8-ball—and by the way, once you’re behind the 8-ball on this one, there’s NO catching up! The only way to catch-up would be to re-invent your company from the ground up.
If you’re the average technology user, it simply means begin to be concerned about your personal privacy. First you’ll experience using different and better monitors, smaller computers, and faster devices. Pretty soon you won’t be able to recognize just what is man-made, and what is made of natural chemicals. The lines are blurred; it’s too late to worry about this. Eventually we’ll need Nanotechnology labels on not just food, but clothing and products we purchase. Within 10 years, we’ll need Nanotechnology warnings on services or intangibles we buy, especially if the goods are delivered electronically (like software or upgrades to software). Without warnings, we won’t know exactly what will be affected by Nanotechnology delivery.
Quantum Nanotechnology is the sum of all things based on quantum mechanics, in other words—all of the above types of Nanotechnology rolled together. It is mankind’s ability to control the atom and the atomic elements, even creating our own atomic elements that are not found in nature.
I would like to thank-you for taking the time to read through this exploration of Nanotechnology. I hope you enjoyed this brief journey through different areas of Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is an important part of life today and therefore must be discussed in public forums. If you aren’t yet aware of Nanotechnology or haven’t researched its far-reaching impacts, it is suggested that this discovery process begin. In future articles I will explore additional uses and applications of each of these Nanotechnology areas. In addition I will continue to speculate on just what this all means to the computing society and devices with which we currently depend on.
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