23 September 2014

The Science of small things

 - Sunday, 24 June 2007, 00:00



At the moment nanotechnology exists almost exclusively in the laboratory. But it has the potential to revolutionise our lives.

Put simply, it’s science measured on a scale of billionths of a metre. At that level everything, even life, is reduced to fundamental interactions between atoms and molecules.

Our material world is made up of atoms. A single raindrop contains about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them, for atoms are miniscule – only one tenth of a nanometre in size, and a nanometre measures a mere one-millionth of a millimetre.

Nanotechnology aims to manipulate and control these particles to create novel structures with unique properties, and promises huge advances in manufacturing, medicine and computing.

Ever since John Dalton convinced the world of the existence of atoms in 1803, scientists have wanted to do things with them.

Nanotechnology takes that ability to a new plane and opens up all kinds of futuristic imaginings.

Essentially, nanotech is manipulation at the molecular scale – distances that may cover just a few millionths of a millimetre.

But its potential is not just about being able to miniaturise things. Indeed, scientists and engineers recognise that there are fundamental limits to pure miniaturisation.

Working on a scale a million times smaller than a pinhead allows researchers to “tune” material properties, making them behave in different ways to normal, large-scale solids.

This behaviour can be exploited in quite groundbreaking ways.

Nature has been doing nanotechnology for a long time, and it has become expert at it. Consider the super-fine hairs on a gecko’s feet, which allow it to stick to walls and even hang upside down on a glass sheet.

Learning from nature, nanotechnology promises humans ways of making systems that are smaller, lighter, stronger, more efficient, but cheaper to produce.

It is expected to transform the performance of materials, like polymers, electronics, paints, batteries, sensors, fuel cells, solar cells, coatings, computers and display systems.

In five years’ time, batteries that only last three days will be laughable. Similarly, in 10 years’ time, the way medical testing is done now will be considered crude.

To say that in five years, an iPod will have 10 times its current storage capacity will be conservative, he said.

In the not-so-distant future, a terabit of data – equivalent to 10 hours of fine quality uncompressed video – will be stored on an area the size of a postage stamp.

Clearly, the devices themselves will not be nano-sized. But nanotechnology will play its part in shrinking components, and making them work together a lot more efficiently.

Some short-term nano uses

Medical diagnostic tools and sensors

Solar energy collection (photovoltaics)

Direct hydrogen production

Flexible display technologies and e-paper

Composites containing nanotubes

Glues, paints and lubricants

New forms of computer memory

Printable electronic circuits

Various optical components

Some longer-term

nano uses

Miniaturised data storage systems with capacities comparable to whole libraries’ stocks

PCs with the power of today’s computer centres

Chips that contain movies with more than 1,000 hours of playing time

Replacements for human tissues and organs

Cheap hydrogen storage possibilities for a regenerative energy economy

Lightweight plastic windows with hard transparent protective layers

Some potential uses of nanotechnology

1 – Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) for displays

2 – Photovoltaic film that converts light into electricity

3 – Scratch-proof coated windows that clean themselves with UV

4 – Fabrics coated to resist stains and control temperature

5 – Intelligent clothing measures pulse and respiration

6 – Bucky-tubeframe is light but very strong

7 – Hip joint made from biocompatible materials

8 – Nano-particle paint to prevent corrosion

9 – Thermo-chromic glass to regulate light

10 – Magnetic layers for compact data memory

11 – Carbon nanotube fuel cells to power electronics and vehicles

12 – Nano-engineered cochlear implant

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