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The Technology that Changes Everything
The Global Intelligence

The Technology that Changes Everything

Posted 12 May 2015   |   1326 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) It’s not a question of ‘if’ nanotechnology will shake the world, but ‘by how much’.

Held aloft by an electric field, an infinitesimally-sized piece of gold begins to vibrate. The gold particle is so tiny that it is swaying in the sound given off by nearby bacteria. Researchers at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians University unveiled their invention earlier this year of a microphone so sensitive that it can distinguish between nearly identical strains of bacteria by the vibrations they make. This “nano-ear” is capable of picking up sounds over a million times fainter than the human ear can.

Nanotechnology is innovating almost every field of science and technology. From the detection and prevention of infectious diseases to the collection of solar energy, the implications of working with particles on the nanoscale are wide reaching. The applications of nano developments will revolutionize many areas of society with new technologies as well as with cost-effective replacements of old ones, and both types of advances will have implications around the globe. There is reason to be both hopeful and cautious of what this new level of innovation can accomplish for both the wealthiest and most impoverished nations on the globe.

The all-encompassing field of nanotechnology will soon play an invisible role in every aspect of society. Nanotechnology is a catch-all term for any form of innovation that comes out of the specific manipulation of particles on the nanoscale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and it is the scale on which atoms and molecules are measured. Comparatively, if human beings were only a nanometer tall, planet Earth would be merely 7.5 millimeters wide.

A ‘nanoparticle’ is any particle that is best measured in nanometers. Nanoparticles are of a size that is roughly the length a fingernail grows in the time it takes to read this sentence. Every atom and molecule is a nanoparticle, and thus the nanoscale exists naturally in the world. Nanotechnology is any technology that is developed as a result of meticulously working with specific atoms and molecules.

To start with, this manipulation allows for smaller technology. The public imagination immediately leaps to such proposed inventions as ‘nanobots’ iniature machines that could, for instance, autonomously conduct medical procedures within the human body. Nanotechnology, however, is not only the development of microscopic computers that function much as their larger counterparts. There is something unique in the properties of particles that exist on the nanoscale. The Journal of Nanotechnology Online describes how “when dealing with matter below approximately 50 nanometers, the laws of quantum physics supersede those of traditional physics”. Nanoparticles may have a different “conductivity, elasticity, reactivity, strength, color, and tolerance to temperature and pressure” than the same material on a larger scale. Taking advantage of these differences allows for brand new innovations which have no precedence in technology of a traditional scale.
Nanotechnology got fully underway after the 1981 invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, which is an instrument that images surfaces at the atomic level. Beyond simply depicting nanoparticles up close, however, scientists discovered that they could use the microscope to actually touch individual atoms and carefully move them around.

Nanotechnology sprung out of such intentional arrangements of atoms and molecules. Those responsible, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their achievement. Scientists became much better able to observe and manipulate interactions between atoms, and so they began to develop new technologies as a result of both better understanding certain reactions and intentionally manipulating such small particles.

The Computer of a Lifetime
Stepping away from the concept of microscopic machines, one invention in particular illustrates how diverse the use of nanotechnology can be. Central Japan International Airport has nearly 15,000 panes of glass on one face of the building. They are kept clean using a nano invention. Titanium Dioxide clusters less than 10 nanometers in diameter coat the windows. They are invisible to the human eye, but when excited by the sun’s UV rays, this hotocatalytic coating breaks down dirt clinging to the window, allowing it to float away on a gentle breeze.

One of the earliest and greatest discoveries of nanotechnology is the carbon nanotube. Carbon nanotubes are single molecules of carbon atoms bonded together in the shape of a tube. The walls of the tube are made up of a hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms. The lattice wraps in on itself to form the hollow tubes that can be many million times longer than they are wide. Collected in multitude, carbon nanotubes could look like nothing more than a fine, black powder to the human eye. Their uses, however, are many.

Foremost, carbon nanotubes are the strongest material ever discovered in terms of tensile strength and elasticity, far surpassing the capabilities of steel for some uses. But their unique, hollow nature makes them not nearly as strong under compression or bending stress. For the right uses, however, carbon nanotubes can maintain the same strength as other materials at a drastically reduced weight. Already nanotubing is being used in high-performance sports equipment such as tennis rackets and bicycle frames. The number of applications is growing, including possible uses in light-weight structures. Hypothetical uses proposed by some scientists include cables that attach space stations to our planet’s surface to guide independently-propelled elevators directly to the satellites.
Carbon nanotubes also have very unique conductive properties. According to the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, carbon nanotubes are only about as conductive of thermal energy across their width as soil. Along their length, however, they are nearly ten times as conductive of thermal energy as copper. When it comes to electrical current running along its length, carbon nanotubes can theoretically reach an electric current density up to 1,000 times greater than that of copper.

This has significant implications for both decreasing the size and increasing the processing power of computers of the future. A carbon lattice called graphene that is similar to that in nanotubes is currently being tested by researchers at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in the United States as a potential replacement for conventional silicon in computer microchips. While silicon conductors have a significantly larger limit of how close they can be placed next to each other before interference occurs, graphene is the next step in shrinking computer processors as its conductors can be packed much more densely together. Nanotechnology is creating a very plausible method to fit the processing power of today’s computers into dramatically smaller apparatuses. Such computers could be worn as glasses, an ear piece, or even internally attached directly to a user’s brain using other nano developments that allow prosthesis to better connect with nerve fibers.

Computers developed with nanotechnology can even go a step further, however. Professor Jim Gimzewski of UCLA is currently collaborating with Japanese physicist Dr. Masakazu Aono to create a “neuromorphic computer”. On the nanoscale, the atoms in silver molecules protrude slightly when a current is passed through them. This discovery was initially investigated as a form of computer “on-off ”, or binary, switch as the protrusion can create a conductive bridge between nearby silver molecule chains. The benefit was first thought to be only how small the technology allowed such binary switches to be manufactured.

Gimzewski, however, saw another use. The silver atoms remained in their configuration for a short time after the current had finished flowing. This reminded Gimzewski of how the human brain creates memories by establishing connections through which electrons can flow. By using a configuration of silver atoms that is reminiscent of the tangled web of brain synapses, Gimzewski seeks to model a computer off the human brain. The research is in its infancy now, but rather than being hard-coded
with processes, such a computer could learn through repetition much the way a developing human brain does. Through nanotechnology, the possibility exists for an artificial intelligence that could be taught rather than programmed to think.

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