In the tiny world of nanotechnology, the possibilities are endless. Scientists
envision supercomputers the size of a sugar cube, food made out of dirt and
making sick people well by rearranging the insides of their cells.
Nanotechnology is basically the science of making tiny things. A nanometer
is a very small unit, about a billionth of a meter. This is roughly the same
length as three or four atoms in a row.
Ultimately, nanotechnology researchers are able to arrange single atoms
with such precision that the end result is a tiny functioning product.
Eric Drexler's book, Engines of Creation, laid out many of the current
nanotechnology theories. Drexler is now in charge of the Foresight Institute,
an association of researchers.
Gina Miller is a senior associate at the Foresight Institute and the publisher
of the Nanotechnology Industries Newsletter. "All these products would be
very inexpensive because the molecular machines that build them will basically
take atoms from garbage or dirt, and energy from sunshine, and rearrange those
atoms into useful products -- just like trees and crops take dirt and water
and sunshine and rearrange the atoms into wood and food," she says.
"Right now, the only molecular machines that exist are those inside living
cells. Right now, Mother Nature and evolution are the only true nanotechnologists.
In effect, it is nature itself that we would like to mimic."
Chris Phoenix is a senior associate at the Foresight Institute. "There's
already a program that watches you type and makes suggestions based on what
you type," he says. "So, we're probably not far away from something that watches
you cook and says, 'Don't you think some oregano would taste good in that?'"
All of this would be done by one simple procedure. Simple, that is, in
That theory goes like this. Everything is made up of atoms, which are in
turn made up of subatomic particles. Being able to move those particles around
would allow scientists to change coal into diamonds, make dirt into food or
change sick cells into healthy ones.
Products could be manufactured without pollution and, once the process
was in place, at low cost.
Ralph Merkle is a nanotechnology researcher. "Nanotechnology is going to
have a major impact on the future development of the human species," he says.
"It's a major subject. It's a major area. It's going to save lives. It's
going to let us explore space. It's going to let us make major advances in
medicine, in computer science and in a host of other fields of human activity."
Currently, many scientists in this field are focusing on robots that remake
themselves, thereby eliminating the cost of production. Just like protein
makes up DNA -- which determines what each cell in a human body looks like
-- a "programmed" robot could make itself over and over forever without wearing
Other advances in nanotechnology include buckyballs and nanotubes -- tiny
structures built of human-engineered molecules. Studies on both things are
still being done. However, nanotechnologists predict that these discoveries
will be useful for all kinds of things, from medical technology to photocopiers.
Right now, the "nano-world" is way too small for humans to consistently
move subatomic matter around. Nanotechnology experts can't predict when advances
will occur. It could happen in 20 years, or it might take 200.
MITRE is one of many North American companies involved in nanotechnology
research. IBM, Xerox and others are also in the hunt for the next big discovery.
Some of the work is kept private, since firms don't want their discoveries
More often, however, research in nanotechnology is shared at scientific
conferences. "Actually, the area is relatively open," says Merkle.
Since nanotechnology gets no immediate results, researchers are willing
to share today's discoveries for the benefit of tomorrow's research.