What if scientists could create tiny robots that travel through the body to repair damaged cells, snuff out viruses or fix broken bones? It may sound far-fetched, but with a cutting-edge science known as molecular nanotechnology, scientists may actually able to meet these goals, and perform even greater feats that may seem unbelievable to non-scientists.
Nanotechnology is the science of modifying objects at the atomic or molecular level. Professionals in this field measure items in terms of nanometers, which is equal to one-billionth of a meter. To put that in perspective, a single human hair measures about 100,000 nanometers wide [source: Environment News Service]. Using nanotechnology, scientists build objects molecule-by-molecule, resulting in near-perfect products that far surpass any existing objects in terms of performance, effectiveness and longevity.
While this may seem like a highly specialized field, there are many more people involved in nanotechnology research than you may think. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative was granted a $1.5 billion budget in 2009, and the budget was increased to $1.76 billion for 2010 [source: National Nanotechnology Initiative]. Clearly, nanotechnology, in all forms, is big business in the United States and around the world.
This futuristic field of science actually dates back to 1959, though most of the major advances in nanotechnology have come in the past two decades. Today, you probably come across nanotechnology in the form of composite materials like dental implants or baseball bats. This technology also helps manufacturers make your favorite electronics smaller more portable. But the most exciting applications of this technology have come in breakthroughs made in recent years, as scientists have developed ways to apply nanotechnology to fields like medicine, robotics and the environment.
5. Clean Energy Sources
For centuries, people throughout the developed world have relied on coal, oil and other fossil fuels to supply the majority of energy used for power and transportation. But fossil fuels are in limited supply, and many believe they're simply not sustainable. And not only are coal, oil and natural gas supplies fixed, their use also causes pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. While some people have turned to alternative sources like wind or solar power, these eco-friendly energy sources represent only a small portion of the world's total energy production.
New breakthroughs in molecular nanotechnology may be the solution to the world's dependency on fossil fuels. Using nanotechnology to modify materials at the atomic level has allowed scientists to produce solar cells that are five times more effective than traditional silicon-based units. While solar panels currently in use capture only about 6 percent of solar energy, new technologies allow panels to capture up to 30 percent of solar energy, including invisible infrared rays. Installing these new solar cells across just 0.1 percent of the earth's surface would supply enough energy to eliminate the need for oil. Even better, these small flexible solar cells could be woven into the clothes you wear to charge a cell phone or computer on the go. Solar cells in cars could even be used to charge your car battery, making gas stations obsolete [source: Lovgren].
Nanotechnology also allows scientists to make more efficient and affordable fuel cells to power portable electronics and even vehicles. Traditional fuel cells resemble a battery pack, but contain an internal membrane that allows only hydrogen to pass through to supply power. Using principles of nanotechnology, manufacturers can make this membrane even more efficient, resulting in lightweight, high-powered fuel cells [source: UnderstandingNano.com].
The concept of nanorobotics reads like something straight out of science fiction where microscopic assemblers work in mini, self-contained factories. These nanofactories would fit right on a standard tabletop and measure not much bigger than a breadbox. Carbon-based "robots" within the factory could not only produce consumer goods like hardware and electronics, but also self-replicate to create new robots to join the workforce. Some of these newly created assemblers would also be used in healthcare, and could be released into the human body to capture cell-level images, repair wounds or even fix damaged DNA.
Robots within the factory would build products from the atomic level up, creating an essentially perfect object. By eliminating flaws and creating high-quality materials without the need for human labor, nanorobots would produce objects quicker and at a lower cost than traditional manufacturing processes [source: Foresight Institute].
While nanorobots are likely several decades away at the earliest, recent advances in nanotechnology have helped pave the way for this type of technology. In 2006, the Foresight Institute awarded its annual innovation award to researchers who developed methods that will allow nanorobots to self-replicate using DNA [source: Foresight Institute]. In 2010, IBM introduced a micro-milling process that's capable of etching 1,000 3-D maps of the world on a single grain of salt [source: United Press International]. New materials -- like graphene, which measures just one atom thick -- also promise to advance the development of nanorobotics [source: Chan].
3. Accessible Medical Testing
In many developing countries, a lack of adequate medical facilities makes testing and treating diseases extremely difficult. Even treatable ailments like malaria and tuberculosis continue to claim more than 3 million lives a year worldwide due to lack of resources [source: World Health Organization and Nanowerk].
Part of the problem lies in a simple lack of refrigeration systems. Traditional malaria tests use reagents that must be refrigerated in order to provide accurate results. Fortunately, new advances in nanotechnology may be the solution doctors are looking for. The U.S.-based Micronics Corporation has developed the DxBox, a disease testing kit no larger than a credit card. Using dried reagents and nano-plumbing systems built into the face of the card, doctors can perform basic blood tests without the need for refrigeration or any special supplies. The small size and cutting-edge technology used to produce these test kits makes them more effective and portable than any other type of malaria test, allowing doctors to test people in even the most remote or underdeveloped regions.
The DxBox testing system can be used, not only for malaria and tuberculosis, but also to test nearly a half-dozen other diseases, most of which are easily treated. By providing a quick and accurate diagnosis, these test kits allow doctors to determine proper treatment, which can help save lives [source: Biovision Solutions].
2. Effective Environmental Cleanup
A staggering 600 million people worldwide suffer ill health effects from polluted or insufficient water supplies, and this number could easily top 2 billion within the next two decades [source: Nanowerk]. Fortunately, a number of advances in nanotechnology may help ease the effects of water shortages by removing pollutants, or by helping people use water more effectively.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in terms of water conservation comes in the form of nanomagnets. These microscopic magnetic particles can capture arsenic in water, leaving it clean enough to drink. This technology removes as much as 99 percent of arsenic from water, which stands to benefit as many as 65 million people worldwide [source: Environment News Service and Wolfe].
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, special iron-based nano filters can serve as effective and low-cost alternatives to traditional carbon-based water filters. These tiny iron particles form a membrane barrier to quickly clean groundwater supplies much faster than traditional pumping techniques. Using microscopic iron particles to treat dirty water can remove large volumes of chlorine, mercury or even radon [source: EPA].
Nanotechnology may even allow manufacturers to reduce water and air pollution associated with fossil fuel extraction. The process involves the use of zeolites, or tiny rock particles filled with an infinite number of microscopic holes. The zeolites serve as filters for oil sands and other fossil fuel sources, and allow workers to capture the oil without releasing harmful levels of carbon dioxide into the air. By cutting CO2 emissions, zeolites also keep potential pollutants from contaminating groundwater and nearby water bodies [source: GE].
1. A Better Cancer Treatment
Modern chemotherapy provides one of the most effective methods for eliminating cancerous cells and preventing them from spreading. Unfortunately, the same powerful chemo drugs that kill cancer can also damage healthy cells, leaving patients vulnerable to other illnesses, pain and nausea. But what if doctors could control the spread of chemotherapy drugs, and direct them only to where they're needed? Thanks to recent advances in molecular nanotechnology, they can.
In 2006, scientists at MIT and Harvard used nanotechnology to destroy prostate cancer cells without damaging healthy tissues nearby [source: Wolfe]. In a similar 2010 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were able to treat breast cancer patients using nanoparticles rather than traditional chemo methods [source: Dutton]. Each of these researchers relied on ultrasound bubbles, which consist of microscopic particles equipped with cancer-fighting drugs. At room temperature, the particles remain stable, but when exposed to body temperature, they join together to form larger particles. Using ultrasound waves, scientists can send signals to the "bubbles" to instruct them when and where to release the medication [source: Science Daily].
Nanoparticles may also give medical professionals a glance into individual cells within the body. Using fluorescent semiconductor crystals, researchers have been able to spot pre-cancerous cells in the colon, leading to early treatment and prevention [source: Collins].
While all of these techniques require additional research before they can be applied to humans outside of the testing lab, nanotechnology does offer hope that science can one day improve survival rates from diseases ranging from cancer to HIV and beyond.
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More Great Links
- Arnaud, Celia. "Making Diagnostics Affordable." Chemical and Engineering News. March 16, 2009. Nov. 3, 2010. http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/87/8711sci1.html
- Chan, Gordon K. "Nanotech Breakthrough: Get Ready for Graphene." Digital Journal. Jan. 19, 2010. Nov. 3, 2010. http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/286032
- Chang, Kenneth. "Can Robots Rule the World? Not Yet." The New York Times. Sept. 12, 2000. Nov. 3, 2010. http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/lgarret/102/robots.htm
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- Collins, Dr. Francis S. "The Cancer You Can Beat." Parade Magazine. June 20, 2010. Nov. 3, 2010. http://www.parade.com/health/2010/06/20-colorectal-cancer-you-can-beat.html
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