Nanotech has been a favourite subject of science fiction since the idea was first suggested: there's something about an army of billions of invisible machines capable of restructuring matter, reproducing and creating materials with new and unheard of properties that draws peoples attention. Who knew? Even better, they only exterminate humanity in about 70% of the stories! Here we look at five amazing atomic automatons (including the nanocar -image left) that have a three-in-ten chance of being signposts on our way to a golden technological future.
Any biologist, botanist or insufferably smug woodland elf will tell you that nature is way ahead of us in invention. That's certainly true for nanotechnology, where Nature Incorporated's popular "DNA" machine is still going strong after a frankly ridiculous number of years. It's also interesting to note that if the very simplest bacteria is version 1.0, we're only 1.0.3. Geneticists have been making spectacular advances in decoding and reprogramming these encrypted instructions, but it takes a particularly awesome genius to look at a set of biological instructions and think "I can hack that into an engine". That's exactly what Professor Weihong Tan and his team at the University of Flordia did, McGuyvering a DNA molecule into a functioning nanomotor.
The molecule expands and contracts to nano-inch its way through a liquid solution. And yes, I did enjoy the irony using a antiquated medieval imperial measurement to describe one of the most modern things ever made. Nanomotors had already been built out of DNA segments, but this was the first to be built out of only one part: that's what makes these scientists insane and awesome - when there's already a functioning nanomotor they go ahead and make it SMALLER.
Speaking of cutting edge devices, and painfully obvious but irresistable segues, some nanogadgeteers at the University of Tokyo have fashioned a pair of molecular shears. They're operated by applying visible and ultraviolet light, causing the blades to rotate around the single iron atom that acts as the pivot. These are blades that could give a virus a haircut, intended for use gripping and moving individual molecules - a vital component of the ultimate goal of nanotechnology research, a nanomachine that can construct other nanomachines.
In this case I don't mean ultimate as in "cannot be improved on", I mean "the last thing we will ever invent. Or see." You might point out that such a nanobot would be invisible, but I would retort that a tidal wave of quintillions of them sweeping through the Earth will be incredibly - if only briefly - visible to the human eye.
3. Self assembling materials
But why bother fiddling around with atoms when you can get the materials to make themselves? It sounds like wishful thinking but a team at the University of Delaware asked exactly that question - then invented an answer. They developed a set of block copolymers (a type of synthetic molecule, a phrase science-fiction authors only wish they thought of before it actually happened) which harness molecular forces - in this case attraction and repulsion from water - causing structures which build themselves rather than forcing scientists to play around with the worlds fiddliest Lego set.
Think of it as Zen engineering - you arrange things so that what happens naturally is what you wanted anyway. Then, if you are so inclined, write in and tell me I don't understand Zen properly (but if you're complaining about something you read on the internet, you probably don't either).
A lot of people say that science and art are mutually exclusive, and you can ignore every single one of them because they clearly don't understand either. No one who's seen the growth of a crystal or the magnetic fields of a tokamak (not to mention the kickass plasma burn) can deny the two are inextricably linked. (Some would hold up superstring theory as the greatest example of beautiful science, but if you want to be able to prove your point it's not a good idea to involve superstring.)
Both are definitely present in the souls of an Osaka engineering team who proved their nanoskills by sculpting a dynamic statue of a bull. Certainly more aesthetic than IBMs rather crude "IBM WOZ HERE" nanograffiti, as well as being a great way to confuse the hell out of someone by slipping a few in their microscope slide. "You saw WHAT mixed in with your bacteria? Professor Jones, what have we told you about 'researching' vodka while you're working?"
Researchers at Rice University have constructed a functioning nanocar - rolling along on four buckyballs (buckministerfullerene on formal occasions) linked by atomic axles, capable of lever action that can working as a 'molecular suspension'.
This is where I'd make jokes about seating capacity and ease of parking if it wasn't a SINGLE MOLECULE WORKING VEHICLE. Seriously, if you hear about this magnificent triumph of science and all you can do is crack water-cooler jokes then please, step away from the science and get back to your daytime TV. Molecular suspension! Do you have any idea how many advertising executives, desperately trying to think of a new way to sell one of four hundred near identical cars, would give their right arm to be able to even lie about such an awesome concept?
This is three of the fundamental machines in one molecule! There only are seven (six if you count the wedge and inclined plane as the same) - that's half of all possible mechanical machinery on a scale that nothing but the most powerful detectors can even see. And they haven't stopped: they've upgraded it with a light-driven engine, changed the design, even swapped out the wheels - if it were possible they'd probably it bass speakers and a spoiler and cruise around downtown.
If I was to truly express my feelings about this invention you'd think I was proposing to marry it - I just count myself lucky to live in such times. You should too.
Posted by Luke McKinney
DNA Nanomotor[ http://www.unisci.com/stories/20022/0516021.htm]
Super small scissors [http://www.livescience.com/technology/070325_smallest_scissors.html]
Self-assembling nanomaterials http://nanosingularity.wordpress.com/2007/08/04/scientists-train-nano-building-blocks-to-take-on-new-shapes/
Self-assembling batteries http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/18194/
The micrometer bull sculpture[http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2001/08/46370]
Pimped out nanocars with light-engines and sweet new wheels [http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/ChemScience/Volume/2006/11/Nanocars_top_gear.asp]