Nanotechnology in our future
Sometime in September 1859, a man sits in his room, it’s cool in England and the fireplace is providing warmth and comfort. An oil lamp sheds a pleasant light and the man continues to write the last pages of a book that would change the way we look at our world: “These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.” The man in the room was Charles Darwin and the book was “On The Origin Of Species”, a book which set the foundation of all evolutionary biology.
Charles Darwin’s book talks about the survival of the fittest and most of us would not doubt that today, we are at least among the fittest, if not the fittest species on earth. We build superior shelters, our weapons are devastating and the speed at which we develop new technologies is amazing.
So, for now, I don’t think we need to fear the challenges of other species. The big question is, if we can manage to sustain our place within nature or if we are eventually causing our own extinction.
We are developing new technologies now faster than ever before - and they are getting a lot smaller. They are so small that you can’t see them with your eyes and so small that they operate at atomic levels.
This new technology is called Nanotechnology and before we go on, I would like to give you a sense of how small Nanotechnology really is: If one nanometer (nm) would be zoomed to the size of a small ant (5mm), this same ant would then stretch over 25,000 kilometers. That is a long stretch given that the distance from Bangkok to New York is only 15,000 kilometers. So Nano is really extremely small.
Nanotechnology or better Nanorobotics already has caught the attention of authors and the film industry. Michael Crichton’s “Prey” or the Borgs “nanoprobes” in Star Trek are just two examples. But distinct from other science fiction plots, Nanorobotics already exist.
In the 1980s Binnig and Rohrer, two IBM scientists invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) at the IBM Zurich laboratory, which brought them a Nobel prize. The STM was basically an early version of atomic force microscopes, which are not only used to observe extremely small objects, but can also be used to interact with and control nanoscale matter. Possibly the best known early presentation of its capability was the IBM logo written with Xenon atoms again at an IBM Research center in Spain. A real world application of Nanotechnology is a desalination plant currently constructed in the city of Al Khafji, Saudi Arabia. This IBM-led development will use nanomembranes to filter out salts and pollutants in the water.
In the almost 30 years since then, scientists have progressed, yet have failed to produce a complete and finished nanorobotic product, a product that only consists of electromechanical components, the ultimate goal when building Nanorobots.
Many of the existing prototypes of Nanorobots or “Nanobots” function quite well in certain respects, but are still mostly biological in nature. One of the first nanobots was a sensor measuring approximately 1.5 nanometers across, capable of counting specific molecules in a chemical sample.
From what scientists believe today, a nanobot ideally consists of a transport means like legs or wheels, a processor as a brain and a fuel cell that powers it. Today the main difficulty seems to be around fuel and propulsion. Designing and manually building nanobots today takes a very long time. With the tools available today we can perform one nano function at a time, so building a fully functional nano robot manually would take virtually forever.
The real solution is to build only a couple of initial nanobuilders, which then would build the final nanobots. On the electrical-mechanical side of things, scientists have successfully produced a robot of around 5 millimeters, but as we saw before, in the example with the ant, that mini-robot is still a giant from a nanoperspective. This robot is simply 100 million times too big.
Noel Jones, Ph.D., an Irish management consultant currently on the staff of Assumption University, Bangkok and formerly at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, has been examining the issues leading up to the advent of the AEC. .....................