Five Live Ones

Five Live Ones

Miniature machines that course through your body, searching out cancer cells and killing them. Tiny devices that eat oil spills or neutralise environmental poisons like dioxin. The creation of strong, lightweight materials to replace metals like steel. Building molecule-size computers. These are some of the promises of nanotechnology.

To the extent that they are aware of it, most people think of nanotechnology as the science of building extremely small machines. In fact, the technology is more far-reaching than that. It essentially amounts to manufacturing on the molecular level: the ability to fabricate materials and devices while each atom is in a very specific location. There are some immediate uses for the technology. The most obvious involves the use of what are called nanotubes - cylindrical molecules that can be combined to create new materials. Lightweight fabrications made of nanotubes are 100 times stronger than steel and can withstand temperatures up to 6500 degrees Fahrenheit. Christine Peterson, president of Foresight Institute, a non-profit California-based nanotechnology think tank, says that these materials will be used in building everything from automobiles to office buildings. "Any company involved in manufacturing any kind of physical objects needs to know about this technology," Peterson says. The potential benefits of nanotechnology are so extreme - and yet so gauzy - that when some people speak of them, an almost mystical tone creeps into their voice. But the gap between the technology's promise and its present-day reality is likewise extreme. The irony is that while seers envision molecule-size factories or miniature machines eating cancer, what's here today is far more mundane. The Illinois-based nanotechnology company Nanocor supplies nanosize clay minerals to the plastics industry, while Massachusetts-based Hyperion Catalysis International, a carbon nanofibre manufacturer, produces conductive carbon fibrils technology used by GE Plastics to make automobile parts. Not groundbreaking stuff, but it's a start.

"In any field, you need to start with materials as a foundation, so it makes sense this would be the first use," says Scott Mize, a senior associate at Foresight Institute. In the next few years, Mize says, nanotechnology will reach the IT industry, leading to the creation of ever-smaller memory devices and processors. Beyond that, it will find widespread use in biotechnology, health care and pharmaceuticals. Further in the future, Peterson sees a huge effect on manufacturing. "Picture a production line where every atom is under control, a tiny assembly line where the objects you're making aren't car parts but molecules . . . And if you have control of every atom at all times, you don't need to dump anything or create any kind of pollution - you recycle, reuse or package it all into environmentally benign forms," Peterson remarks. Glover Ferguson, chief scientist for Accenture (US), says that nanotechnology could feasibly be combined with peer-to-peer and wireless networking. Ferguson predicts the development of smart nanodust consisting of miniature programmable sensors that would be able to communicate wirelessly with their peers. The applications are boundless. Imagine, for example, sprinkling the dust in an area where you needed security coverage. The dust particles would behave as security sensors.

Make way for an invisible infrastructure of infinitesimally small, flexibly programmable objects.

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