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dotIn 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.

dotUltimately, nanotechnology researchers are able to arrange single atoms with such precision that the end result is a tiny functioning product.

dotEric 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 theory.

dotThat 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."

dotCurrently, 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 out.

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.

dotRight 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.

dotMITRE 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 stolen.

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.

At a Glance

Try to manipulate atoms and subatomic particles

  • Nanotechnology is basically the science of making tiny things
  • Most scientists in this field are focusing on robots that remake themselves
  • Take a wide range of science classes