March 23, 2007 By Chad Vander Veen
The previous night's festivities have taken their toll, so as he goes to pour himself a cup of coffee, he grabs a small device that resembles a blood-glucose meter. He feeds the machine a blood sample and connects it to the USB port on his computer, which immediately presents a report on his current health.
As the man's pounding head foretold, his blood-alcohol level hovers around 0.05 percent. He also finds his body is creating antibodies to fight off a cold virus. And, as always, he checks to see if his cancer is still in remission -- which it is.
If nanotechnology research blossoms the way its advocates promise, such a scenario may be only a few years away, and 2017 might make 2007 look like a technological stone age. Researchers teeter on the edge of breakthroughs that could change virtually every aspect of our existence. Nanotechnology -- complicated, fascinating and essentially invisible -- is poised to make the frontiers of imagination become everyday realities.
So what exactly is nanotechnology? The term refers to the engineering of materials at remarkably small sizes. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and things that fit on the "nanoscale" include anything smaller than 100 nanometers. For comparison, a human hair is about 75,000 nanometers wide.
John Miller, vice president of business development at Pasadena, Calif.-based Arrowhead Research, is an authority on nanotechnology and co-author of The Handbook of Nanotechnology: Business, Policy, and Intellectual Property Law.
On the nanoscale, regular elements behave in highly irregular ways, Miller said, which leads to intriguing and useful possibilities.
Take gold, for example. Everyone is familiar with its properties at the macro scale. But nanoparticles of gold look and act completely different. Vanga Reddy, who finished his Ph.D. thesis in 2006 at the University of Bern in Switzerland, noted in his paper Gold Nanoparticles: Synthesis and Applications that gold nanoparticles show colors like ruby red, blue, green and orange, depending on the size and shape. The gold nanoparticles, he wrote, also show remarkable catalytic activity, whereas bulk gold is known to be catalytically inert.
Things at the macro or micro scale have certain properties, and you can do specific, known things with them, Miller said. "When you work with them at the nanoscale, they have whole new properties because there are quantum effects. You get whole new materials and you make completely new devices."
By far the most celebrated example of such unusual behavior was found in the element carbon, one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Diamonds, graphite -- even people -- wouldn't exist without carbon. But deep inside its structure, at the atomic scale, the material held a secret first discovered in the 1950s -- the carbon nanotube.
A carbon nanotube is a cylinder one nanometer in diameter made of either individual carbon atom sheets or multiple sheet layers "rolled" into seamless tubes. Two Russian scientists found larger 50-nanometer nanotubes in 1952. Although their work was published, it was largely ignored and eventually forgotten. In 1985, these carbon structures were again observed, only this time as spheres. Then in 1991, the cylinders -- or tubes -- were rediscovered. Since then, research into nanotechnology has grown exponentially.
When carbon atoms are arranged in this cylindrical structure, they become the strongest materials that will ever be made, Miller said. "These materials are stronger than anything anyone thought possible."
Indeed, carbon nanotubes can be hundreds of times stronger than steel at one-tenth the weight. The manufacturing implications alone are difficult to comprehend. But