Nano-medicine: Nanoscientists are innovating nanobots like this one that are small enough to travel through the bloodstream and in and out of cells. They will be capable of delivering medicine, finding and killing cancer cells, monitoring, measuring, or clearing plaque from arteries. Image courtesy of Gordon College.
Strolling down a nanotube. Here is our walking protein in action. He is walking along a microtubule, a biological component found in the cytoplasm of cells. He walks up and down the tubule all day and all night, carrying nano-substances into and out of cells. Nanoscientists are working to harness this capability for a variety of medical purposes. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
How does a nanobot walk? Via naturally-occuring cellular ATP processes. Microtubules have a positive and negative end. Most protein nanobots (called kinesins) move toward the positive end — from the inside to the outside of most cells. Some (known as dyneins) move in the opposite direction — from the outside in. Enlarged view. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Atomically-small gears and motors
A nanomotor: These colored dots represent different classes of atoms. The movement of this nanomotor is caused by their chemical interactions. Image from Center for Responsible Technology.
Molecular gear train: This the first molecular gear train ever designed. It was built with 15,342 atoms, making it the second largest nanomechanical device ever modeled in atomic detail as of 2013. Image from Center for Responsible Technology.
A universal joint nanobot: Here, too, the dots you see are atoms. This was created by nanoscientist Mark Sims, Image courtesy of Nanorex.
Fullerene nano-gears: NASA is developing nanobots such as this gear device made of two fullerenes (a fullerene is a carbon-based nanotube, pictured below). The dots you see are atoms! The gear teeth are made of benzyne molecules that are attached to each nanotube. On one side of each nanotube is a positively charged atom, on the other, a negatively charged atom. The gears are driven by a laser that creates an electric field around the nanotube, which rotates due to the positive and negative polarity. Image courtesy of NASA.
There's more to nanotechnology than nanobots and nanogears. Nanoscientists are developing the making and use of nanoparticles, nanocrystals, nanocomposites, nanocoatings, nanowires, and other nanomaterials.
Here are some of the applications for nanoparticles alone:
Nanoparticles are about to revolutionize our lives in these many ways. Click to enlarge chart. Image from Rui Natário's Networks and Servers blog.
A composite is some one thing made up of distinct parts (two or more other things).
Some composite parts are layered, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is a composite of bread, peanut butter and jelly.
Some composite parts are blended, like a chocolate cake, which is a composite of flour, eggs, butter, sugar and coco.
Nanoscientists combine nanosubstances with existing substances to make new materials with new and often amazing properties:
Flexible phones and computer screens … Carbon nanotubes combine with polymers to produce thin, flexible electrode sheets great for bendable cell phones, elastic touch screens, and ultra-thin computer screens that roll up like a poster.
Nokia's Twist phone bends and twists thanks to a nanocomposite design. Image courtesy of Nokia Research Center.
Smart food packaging ... Scientists are developing new generations of food packaging with a variety of nanosubstances that can:
detect and signal food spoilage (using nanosensors built into the packaging material)
monitor and signal changes in temperature (using nanoparticles that cause the packaging to change color if the interior temperature rises above freezing, for example)
prevent bacterial growth (using nanoparticles that kill bacteria and other microbes)
prevent oxidation (using nanoparticles that eat up oxygen inside the container or nanomaterials that block oxygen from seeping into the container)
keep food fresher longer (using nanosubstances that improve the food's enzyme stability and retard breakdown)
be biodegradable (using nanoparticles that provide strength to biodegradable packaging material)
Better bone repair … A new nanocomposite made of inorganic nanofibers suspended in a gelatin matrix creates artificial bone material that helps grow new bone by increasing blood flow to bone cells.
New skin … A similar nanocomposite has produced skin-like tissue used for burns that require skin grafts. These nanocomposites promote cell growth.
making whole new types of matter
One of the more incredible wonders of the Nano Age is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology promises two remarkable abilities:
The manufacturing of tiny (invisible) machines, atom by atom, the size of molecules, tinier than a cell (see nanobots).
The manufacturing of everyday objects, molecule by molecule, with a desktop nanofactory (pictured here).
Nanofactories like the one above will build complex structures by creating large molecular shapes using mechanochemistry and assembling them into a finished product. This finished product will come out of the nanofactory in the form of a block or brick that will open up like a pop-up book or inflate like an air mattress. If you're curious about nanofactories, here's a PDF titled Building a Nanofactory.
Nanofactories vs 3D printers Nanofactories are not the same as 3D printers, which fabricate objects from various kinds of plastic (and at a larger, industrial level, from metal and ceramic). The molecular assembly of nanofactories is very precise and works with atoms, not plastic, meaning they will be able to make virtually anything out of raw elements like silicon or carbon or copper. As of 2013, there are a number of 3D printers that have been successfully developed. Nanofactories are still in early stages of development. Here's an interesting article on nanotechnology and 3D printing.
changing the performance of existing matter
Nanoscientists make functional nanosubstances (atoms or molecules like graphene, for example) and paint them on a surface to create interesting and useful effects, such as:
Pollution-eating surfaces … Buildings and sidewalks can be treated with self-cleaning nano-coatings that eat up and decompose nearby air pollution and car exhaust.
Electricity-generating objects … Nano-size PV solar cells will soon be painted or sprayed onto curtains, rooftops, gadgets, or the body of a car, which then can make and deliver electricity, even without visible sunlight.
Self-powered gadgets: Our cell phones will soon be powered by small bits of light or heat captured from the air. The secret: a coating of nano-solar-cells that delivers continuous power to the device.
Self-cleaning clothes … Clothes maker Eddie Bauer sells a pair of khaki pants made of fabric coated with a nano-material that repels dirt and stains. The Japanese have designed socks that never get stinky.
more nanotechnology in everyday life
Within our lifetime, many of us will benefit from these nanotechnology apps:
Indestructible motorcycle helmets and luggage using nanocomposite polymers
Scratch-resistant and self-cleaning eyeglasses using nanofilms
Water purifiers that remove everything from arsenic to viruses to nano-size poisons.
Nano-paper-towels that can absorb 20 times its weight in oil for oil spill cleanup.
Nanobot sensors that can detect, identify and neutralize harmful chemicals in the air and soil.
Semiconducting nanocrystals called quantum dots that can locate and identify certain types of cells or specific types of biological activities (such as the growth of cancer cells)
Self-driving cars, made possible by the exponential growth of motion sensors and robotics and innovations in nanotechnology.
Bionic ears, eyes and limbs using new advances in medical nanotechnology research.
Nanobot sensors that continually monitor the condition and performance of bridges, railroads, tunnels, and pavement over time.
This page was created by Melanie Pahlmann, responsible progress advocate and solarpunk author. If you wish to send me a message, please use this address:
melanie at luratia dot com
Solarpunk is a nascent fiction genre, whose writers and artists dare to imagine better, positive futures. It is an answer to sci fi author Neal Stephenson’s call for “a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction.”