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Five Tiny Things You Need to Know About Nanotech

Nanocar270_tcm1851380_2 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.

1. Nanomotor

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.

2.  Scissors

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).

4.  Sculpture

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?"

5.  Nanocar

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

Story Links:

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]
Nanocar[http://www.media.rice.edu/media/NewsBot.asp?MODE=VIEW&ID=7850]
Pimped out nanocars with light-engines and sweet new wheels [http://www.rsc.org/Publishing/ChemScience/Volume/2006/11/Nanocars_top_gear.asp]

Comments

This is a fantastic story, especially the last section and the line about the sf writers' wishing they had thought of the phrase first. I've been reading sf since I was ten (now 53!) but as a writer and writing teacher, I have to say this is one of the best written stories I've seen on TDG! You got ME caught up in YOUR excitement, Mr. McKinney, in addition to my own interest in nanotech.

Thanks for the comment, Jane! I'm really glad to have shared my love of this subject with you, and know that you have also boosted my own love of writing with your feedback!

Thank you for a most interesting and informative article! I am very interested nanotechnology as I see it as the "wheel" of the future.
I am not a "techie" but an "artsie" which may be good as my mind is not cluttered with pre-existing scientific info that tells me "you can't do that" or "that runs counter to the rule of such and such". However, my mind is not programmed to receive and process scientific info either, regardless of whether it is cluttered or not.

In any case I appreciate what is being done with nanotechnology in its infant stages. I see this as the beginning of a time when great strides will be made, much like those made in molecular science within the last 30 years.

Keep these articles on nanotechnology coming. It helps me keep abreast of great things to come.

Bradford H. Brinton, JD (ret)

Dateline 2025
scene: Neurosugrical Institute.
Doctor Smith: The brain tumor is inoperable.
Nanotechnologist: No problem, I'll send in a few million nanosurgeons to take it apart a cell at a time!
Patient: Does my insurance cover this?

Einstein was right, the problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them. Mother Nature's web is being pulled apart by our scientists who believe they have the right to do with Nature as they please, with no duty or responsibility for the repercussions. But our scientists trained in subjects isolated from each other like slices of pie are no where near intelligent enough to understand the effects and reactions of messing with the very foundation of all matter and living systems.

When I was 16, I thought nanotech was really cool. Now, after much consideration and many life lessons, I understand that we need to respect and work with Nature's systems, not tear hers up to make our own Lego toys, even if they do cure cancer. Illness, death, and work are essential elements of the cycle of life. By avoiding their discomfort with out medicine and technology, we have created overpopulation and a global climate crisis.

I understand your excitement because I have felt the same way in the past, but please consider the deeper meaning of nanotechnology and it's implications on the bigger picture.

peace,
Riki

do you think that nanotach could cure paralysis. now im not paralyzed myself but my fiance is and i spend every waking night on the computer for research and to my personal opinion about what i have learned stem cells are out and nanotech or the brain gate would be my biggest hope but i know this isn't a discussion about paralysis but i would appreciate your feedback. thanx

do you think that nanotach could cure paralysis. now im not paralyzed myself but my fiance is and i spend every waking night on the computer for research and to my personal opinion about what i have learned stem cells are out and nanotech or the brain gate would be my biggest hope but i know this isn't a discussion about paralysis but i would appreciate your feedback. thanx

Nice post.I appreciate what is being done with nanotechnology in its infant stages. I see this as the beginning of a time when great strides will be made, much like those made in molecular science within the last 30 years.

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