The progress of technology around the world has already turned some of our legends into reality. Nanotechnology is another emerging technology which has a promise to give life the fairy tale of dwarfs. In a few decades , this technology will make “supercomputers that fit on the head of the pin and fleets of tiny nanorobots smaller than human cells” (Merkle, 2000) will be able to treat cancer, eliminate infections, or unclog blocked arteries from within.
The word nano is derived from the Greek word nanos, which means dwarf. Nanotechnology is the science which deals with activities at the molecular level, in other words it enables scientists to create and manipulate structures, components and devices with a size range from about 0.1nm-100 nm, where a nm (nanometer) one billionth of a metre or 3 – 4 atoms wide (NRC, 2003). Here is a comparison of the nano scale to some of our daily life measurements to make our understanding a little easier.
NANO SCALE (NRC, 2003)
0.1 nanometre — Diameter of one hydrogen atom
2.5 nanometres — Width of a DNA molecule
800 nanometres — Diameter of human red blood corpuscle
1.7 billion nanometres — Height of typical human
ARTS AND SCIENCE
Nanotechnology can make the impossible, possible. You have to see it to believe it. Check out this website (http://www.nanogirl.com/ArtisticLicense.html) for an artist’s conception of nanoworld, which includes tiny nanobots [nano-sized robots] that can live in the skin and change pigments for instant makeup, and medical submarines tiny enough to navigate through the human circulatory system.
NANOTECH AND CANADIAN INDUSTRY
Canada is making its mark on nanotechnology. In April of 2002, The National Post (Stewart, D. 2002) noted that in Canada, “the federal and Alberta governments have committed $120 million to the National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton.” However, the same article points out that this spending is a fraction of what U.S, Japan , China, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore have allocated.
There are good reasons for Canada to be spending more on nano research, and particularly to the development of nanocomposites – polymers which “incorporate nanometer-sized particles of clay” and are lighter, stronger, and “less environmentally costly to produce” (NRC, 2003) The National Research Council “estimates for the market for these polymeric nanocomposites by 2009 are $3 billion, with the Canadian market alone being worth $500 million per year by the end of the decade.”
Additionally, The National Post reports that, “there are over 700 companies and research institutes worldwide working on nanotech, with over 11,000 employees.” Predicted growth of “the size of this market by the year 2010 range(s) from US$100 billion to $1 trillion.” Nevertheless, Canada is not making nanotech a priority in the same way as other countries.
The great thing about nanotechnology is that it is truly multidisciplinary because of the great need for scientists from diverse fields to share knowledge, tools and techniques, as well as information on the physics affecting atomic and molecular interactions in this new realm.
Nanotechnology R&D (Research and Development) is opening up vast new horizons in:
Information and Computer Technology.
APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY IN DAILY LIFE
One of the most exciting developments in the field of nano-medicine is the proposal of a new kind of cancer treatment. According to Matt Kelly (2003), Small Times Correspondent , “Cancer, one of mankind’s oldest threats, is about to come under attack from one of its newest tools: nanoparticles.” The hope is that targeted nanoparticles will be able to find cancer cells in patients bodies and then destroy them – thus rendering chemotherapy obsolete. Two companies, Triton Biosystems and Nanospectra Biosciences, have already developed promising anti-cancer technologies which attack cancer cells without causing damage to healthy tissue.
Nanotechnology is not only limited to nano-machines – its applications can be found in every day consumer life. For example, as a housewife if you hate removing nasty stains don’t worry, nanotech is here to help. There is now a fabric on the market which is spill proof, thanks to nanotechnology. Manufacturers of the nano-engineered fabric say that it contains “nano-whiskers” which coat “each fiber of fabric.” Stains are said to be unable to penetrate the fabric through the nano-coating (Long, 2002).
The defense industry has placed a great deal of hope in the development of MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensors to detect dangerous microscopic particles. According to the MEMS Clearinghouse, MEMS is “the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics on a common silicon substrate through microfabrication technology.” According to a Small Times report (2003), the “development of MEMS sensors for real-time detection and monitoring of biological and chemical weapons remains a few years away,” but it’s not so distant. These sensors will make the detection of chemical and biological weapons easy and they will also be able to differentiate between pesticides and other microbes.
Atomic batteries: In the future, there will be no need recharge batteries or buy expensive ones, researchers have developed a microscopic device that could supply power for decades to remote battlefield sensors or implantable medical devices.
Cymbet Corp, of Elk River, Minn., says “its cells are manufactured to last the full life cycle of any product, with the ability to recharge up to 70,000 times using a variety of power sources from inductive current to radio frequency or solar power” (Dukart, 2003).
In this era of global warning we need nanotechnology more than ever to replace conventional fuels. We also need more environmentally friendly products which are body friendly too.
Nanotechnology is being used to engineer ‘organic’ metals from environmentally friendly building blocks like carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. So far these metals are being used in three application areas: anti-corrosion, electronic smog protection and printed circuit board coatings (Thompson, 2002).
The use of MEMS devices in vehicles is expected to nearly double in the next five years. MEMS are being used by the automotive industry to improve performance, reduce costs, and to increase the reliability of the cars. Crash sensing for air bag control represents the largest automotive use of inertial MEMS (Singer, 2002; Sensormag, 2002).
ETHICAL AND SOCIAL CONSIDERATIONS
Endowed with the promise of changing our lives, nanotechnology still faces the big question: is it ethical to move life around this way? Those who are the fans of legendary Star Trek series may remember the Borgs – a mix-and-match of humans and machines. Are we ready to let machines to rule our lives? A pace maker is an excellent example of how a machine may control our heart and thus, our life (Institute of Nanotechnology).
Nanotechnology may make our future generations look back upon us as we have toward medieval times – i.e. we may appear primitive in our use of new technology. Clearly, nanotechnology is a science which can potentially change our lives for the better or the worse. Yes, it will be a boon to have nanotechnology at our disposal but there lies the danger of playing God. Ethical issues like privacy, security, and most of all the modification of living system needs to be resolved now. As cameras and other surveillance devices become tinier, there is a danger of misuse. Similarly , who will regulate the research of offensive and defensive military nanotechnology? These are the questions that should answered now so we can look forward to our nano but grand future (Mnyusiwallal, Daarl & Singer, 2003).
Artistic License: Nanogirl. http://www.nanogirl.com/ArtisticLicense.html
Dukart, J. R. (April 28, 2003). Its Cells May Be Thin, But Cymbet Says They Pack A Big Punch. Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?section_id=93&document_id=5911
Institute of Nanotechnology (2002). Nanotechnology, What is it? Online at: http://www.nano.org.uk/nano.htm
Kelly, M. (April 18, 2003). Startups Seek Perfect Particles To Search And Destroy Cancer. Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5867
Long, K. (December 26, 2002). Got a tendency to spill? Never fear, nanotechnology is here. Daily Herald. Reprinted in Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5239
Merkle, R. C. (2000). Nanotechnology: What Will It Mean? http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/resource/speakm.html
MEMS Clearinghouse. Informational website. http://www.memsnet.org/mems/what-is.html
Mnyusiwallal, A., Daarl, A. S., & Singer, P. A. (2003). “?Mind the gap’: Science and Ethics in Nanotechnology. Institute of Physics Publishing: 2003 Online at: http://www.utoronto.ca/jcb/pdf/nanotechnology_paper.pdf
NRC (2003). National Research Council of Canada: Nanotechnology
About Nanotech: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/nanotech/about_e.html
Nanotech and Canadian Industry: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/nanotech/industry_e.html
Sensormag (Feb 2002). MEMS Sensors Are Driving the Automotive Industry. Sensormag. Online at:
Singer, P. (Oct 4, 2002). MEMS Industry Diversifies And Advances In Many Applications. Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?section_id=58&document_id=4755
Small Times (April 2, 2003). Report: Sensor Market To Reach $4b By 2007. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5770
Stewart, D. (April 26, 2002). Small tech could change our lives in a nanosecond, But we need more funding to help Canadian research. National Post. Online at: http://www.teracap.com/fin.post.%2026Apr02.htm
Stuart, C (November 18, 2002). Cepheid Poised For Postal Contract, Plows On With Life Science Plans. Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?section_id=47&document_id=5062
Thompson, V. (Dec 17, 2002). Ormecon Cultivates Organic Metals For Displays, Coatings And Paints. Small Times: Big News in Small Tech. Online at: http://www.smalltimes.com/document_display.cfm?document_id=5194