Nanotechnology – from fakers to femto

The fakers

Despite it being the biggest buzz term at the forefront of every marketeers repertoire, some of the potential applications for nanotechnology are truly revolutionary.  The media is saturated with some not so convincing products which rely on the the term to justify their somewhat miraculous claims. ‘Batmax’ for example relies on nanotech to somehow boost your phones battery life. Impressive seeing as it’s just a cheap looking adhesive sticker. What a time to be alive when such a magical device can be yours for less than $5.

Notwithstanding the charlatans, nanotechnology has been hailed as the potential driver for the next industrial revolution. Its future applications are likely to span a huge variety of disciplines and subject areas from materials science, to medicine, robotics, space exploration and more. The European Commission is funding at least 50 separate projects linked to the technology. Pretty much every university is following suit as countless privately financed and no doubt militarily backed initiatives (for example, those focusing on how it could lead to the next generation of body armor.)

45th generation Roman

Its interesting that a such a modern discipline of science, the name of which alone, smacks of the 21st century was actually used by the Romans over 1,600 years ago. For quite sometime, scientists were puzzled as to why a Roman glass chalice looked green when lit from the front but appeared red when lit from behind. Eventually, they realised that this was due to the glass having been deliberately impregnated with tiny pieces of gold measuring around 50 nanometres wide. This would’ve been a very exacting and deliberate process which probably resulted in a cup which changed colour when it was filled with liquid. Not bad for technology that came 1000 years before the steam engine.


Future uses?

So where is all this going? What could the world look like if nanotechnology delivers on some of the incredible promises it’s making. Well, here’s of a few of the more interesting ideas…

Space elevators

Currently is costs around $2,000 to send a lemon up to the international space station. Space travel is incredibly expensive. Firmly within the realm of science fiction for decades, space elevators have long been labelled as a key step to making space travel affordable. The principle is simple, build an elevator up in to space therefore dramatically lowering the energy and cost involved in putting things in orbit. One of the key problems here has been that if you’re making an elevator up to space, what on earth do you make the 22,000 mile cable from? The answer to that is carbon nanotubes, a product of nanotechnology which scientists have already made in tiny amounts, it’s just a case of scaling that up somewhat.


Superhuman abilities

If nanotechnology gives us the ability to create tiny machines and tune their molecular characteristics then there is no good reason why we can’t start augmenting our bodies with more efficient versions of certain cells. Scientists are currently conducting experiments on rats to swap out some of their blood cells for respirocytes (mechanical blood cells) which are 236 times more efficient than a regular old hemoglobin based blood cell. Early results look promising and if scaled up to the human level the implications could be staggering. Imagine being able to sprint at top speed for 20 minutes solid or swimming underwater for 2 hours. These are the kind of predictions that these technologies are forecasting if it was introduced in to humans.


Watching the world burn

In a world where we can create hypothetical tiny machines that can arrange molecules to create different materials, what stops someone using such a powerful technology to create the ultimate doomsday weapon? Nano technology pioneer Eric Drexler suggested that all it would take is one nanobot to be programmed to replicate whatever it finds in to a copy of itself in order to start this doomsday clock ticketing. The exponential growth from one nanobot to two, to four and so on has pretty damming implications…

At the end of ten hours, there are not thirty-six new replicators, but over 68 billion. In less than a day, they would weigh a ton; in less than two days, they would outweigh the Earth; in another four hours, they would exceed the mass of the Sun and all the planets combined — if the bottle of chemicals hadn’t run dry long before. – Eric Drexler

It’s a pretty disturbing image to imagine clouds of nanobots sweeping across the skies like locusts, decimating anything organic, turning it in to a copy of itself.


Although this clearly isn’t an imminent threat, it’s recognised as one of the risks of nanotechnology by the Royal Society. Having said that, the theory is generally considered to be more useful as a thought experiment than a true hypothesis – demonstrating the potentially hidden low risk, high impact scenarios that incredible new technologies may usher in.

The femto

Although all this talk of nanotechnology is incredibly interesting, is does beg the question, ‘so what comes after that?’. I recently read about an incredibly hypothetical technology called femtotechnology, in terms of scale nano deals with things down to the size of molecules, pico deals with things down to the atomic level and femto deals with things down to the sub atomic level. It may well be that femtotechnology remains hypothetical forever however it’s very tempting to imagine what might be possible if such a technology existed.

Being able to manipulate objects on this scale would mean that you can control the energy states within an atomic nuclei. The implications of this are definitely in the realm of science fiction but such control would mean that you could create artificial molecules which don’t exist in nature. Instead of being made of atoms, these new substances could be made up of arrangements of nucleons (protons and neutrons) which couldn’t exist naturally. They would likely demonstrate exotic properties not found in the regular periodic table. In fact you could theoretically create an entirely new synthetic periodic table made of unnatural molecules.

Maybe when you next see an science fiction film and the lead character says something about the the alien ship being made of a material they don’t recognise, this new form of matter might come to mind.

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