Although we are all dreaming about an amazing nanobot-powered future, nanotechnology is not limited to nanorobotics. Any science that manipulates matter at the nanoscale for our own uses is an example of nanotechnology. Believe it or not, nanotechnology is already a part of our everyday life, and the chances are that you already make use of nanotechnology, whether you know it or not.
In this article I want to highlight some of the ways in which we’re already relying on nanotechnology to help us in a whole range of different contexts. I’m sure you’ll be as surprised at some of these as I was.
Molecular 3D Printers
If you thought that the 3D printers medical professionals use to make bone replacements or other advanced medical implants were precise, wait till you see what a molecular 3D printer can do. While this intimidating machine does not look like the friendly Makerbot you can buy off Amazon, it is technically a 3D printer, since it can make object in 3D. The difference is that these objects are molecules.
The printer was created by a team at Illinois State University, and it can synthesize thousands of chemicals, some of them incredibly rare, by using sets of “starter” chemicals. While you may think it’s cheating to classify an automated chemistry machine as “nanotechnology”, it does involve precisely making nanoscale objects and then manipulating them. For example, the team figured out a way to remove all but the desired molecule from the mix which requires that ability to work at the nanoscale. They won’t say how (since it’s proprietary for now), but it works.
With this molecular 3D printer you could create a rare chemical, even medicines, in hours. This allows researchers to rapidly make and test entire families of related molecules; this could speed up medical and industrial chemical research like never before. This machine is an honest-to-goodness breakthrough, and the creators envision a world where ordinary citizens have chemical synthesis machines just like this one in their homes. Imagine that instead of getting your medicine from a pharmacy, the doctor sends plans for medicines tailored specifically for your condition, history, and genes!
It’s amazing, the sorts of things that people can get used to. Every day, if you look up into the sky there’s a giant ball of nuclear fire just sitting there; we’re on this huge natural spaceship that just swings past this ball of nuclear fire and we hardly ever stop to consider this. Some people have thought about it quite hard, though, and have asked why we can’t use a little of that abundant nuclear power to supplement our own energy needs. After all, with the exception of a few creatures living off geothermal energy, all life on earth is solar powered – either directly, as with plants, or through the food chain.
The invention of the photovoltaic cell was a major breakthrough in the drive to get clean electricity from sunlight, but the technology has always been too inefficient to actually replace coal or nuclear power. Instead, you were more likely to find them powering things like pocket calculators and space vehicles. Thanks to nanotechnology, that’s all changing. A new nano-material, created by a team at the University of California at San Diego back in 2014, makes it possible to convert 90% of captured sunlight into heat. Once you have heat, you can make steam to drive electrical turbines.
The process proposed here actually transfers the heat to molten salt, which is then used to create steam. By storing the molten salt overnight you can keep making power even when the sun is down. That’s something photovoltaics can’t do without big expensive buffer batteries. This nano-material is like the “black hole of sunlight”, letting very little of it escape. If it can be scaled up to industrial size, that could mean a big step towards breaking our dependence on non-renewable energy sources.
Computer technology boils down to something known as binary code. If you have any sort of system that can present two states standing in for the values “1” and “0”, you can build a computer device with it. CDs and DVDs, for example, have optical pits and lands that represent binary code. Flash memory such as in your phone or USB drive use tiny, micro-scoping switches that flip back and forth to represent ones and zeroes.
Despite being absolutely tiny, these switches are still huge in terms of nanoscale technology. Not to be outdone by the tiny electronics that already exist, a team of researchers at the University of Glasgow created molecular-scale switches. To give you an idea of how small these switches are, if you had a square inch of them you could store 500,000 GB of data. Yes, that’s “five hundred thousand gigabytes”. This technology was created in 2008, but still hasn’t become feasible for the mainstream. Still, it’s an impressive feat and a glimpse of what’s yet to come.
The Atomic Engine
No, no – I don’t mean an engine that runs on atomic power. I mean an engine on the atomic scale. The engine in question is known as a “heat engine”, which is any device that takes heat energy and converts it into mechanical motion. Heat engines are obviously common and we have many examples at large scale, but having the ability to provide mechanical power at the atomic level is a phenomenal achievement.
This tiny engine was made by taking a calcium ion and enclosing it within an electrical trap. The ion is then heated and starts to oscillate. Their experiment may not yet have practical applications today, but it proves at what scale mechanical energy storage and transmission can happen.
The Graphene Engine
Sticking with the theme of engines, this one may be a little closer to a practical component that could be used in nanomachines of the future. Using a special configuration of carbon, called “graphene”, that is only one nanometer thick, a team of scientists created a nanoscale device that works a bit like a two-stroke engine.
Mechanically, the device is very simple. It doesn’t look like a full-scale engine, of course. Unlike a full-scale internal combustion engine, it has very little exhaust matter. The sheet of graphene is combined with chlorine fluoride molecules and then a laser is fired in rapid pulses. The spot where the laser hits rapidly blisters and cools, acting like a piston. This means one could use laser light to provide a nanoscale power source that could operate on a molecular level. Once you have a reliable source of power you can build all sorts of things, which makes this invention very promising!
Rotors are an essential part of all sorts of mechanical designs. Everything from your hair dryer to a jet airplane needs rotors to work. Scientists have been able to create nanoscale rotors from a single molecule. While that’s pretty incredible by itself, this rotor also experiences no friction at all as it spins. That may seem like a violation of Newtonian physics, but it turns out that at the nanoscale, air does not interact with the rotor in the same way it does on human scale.
Nano rotors could be used to power all sorts of nanoscale devices. Imagine, for example, that the flow of blood through your veins could provide power to implanted devices or nanobots themselves.
Yes, a tiny rocket might not seem all that useful at first, but when you think about the distances that nanobots will have to cover it makes sense to have a locomotion method that’s fast. Not only have researchers made working nano rockets, but they have actually created remote-controlled versions. That is pretty amazing!
Nanotechnology Future is Now
Even though we think of nanotechnology as a far-future nanobot world, we’re already halfway through the projected four generations of nanotechnology development. It’s not always clear that something is benefiting from nanotechnology methods, but more and more products and machines are going to incorporate some component that was created at the nanoscale.