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The Future of Nanotechnology

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The future of nanotechnology has been a subject of many scientific and nonscientific speculations, including several doomsday visions in popular culture that predicted self-replicating nano particles taking part in massive assaults on humanity and the environment.  An example of such scenario is given in Michael Crichton popular novel Prey, where "grey goo" self-replicates and overwhelms the world...  Dire predictions have accompanied many new technologies at their infancy (for example robotics in the 1940s and 1950s).  The more futuristic visions of nanotechnology include on one hand the envisioned use of nano-particles inside the body and the blood stream (for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes), and on the other hand – potential development of new weapons of mass destruction enabled by nanotechnology.

Scanning electron microscopy of Silicon Carbide  whiskers. Image Credit: Katya Vishnyakova
and Gleb Yushin, Drexel

Current products of nanotechnology are much more ordinary – reinforced plastics for the body of bicycles, stain-resistant clothes, better cosmetics and healthcare products, and tennis rackets reinforced with carbon nanotubes.

Some authors who discussed the future of nanotechnology differentiate between incremental nanotechnology, evolutionary nanotechnology, and radical nanotechnology.  Incremental nanotechnology is represented, for example, by reinforcement of current materials by nano-scale devices – leading, as one application, to development of better paints.  Evolutionary nanotechnology involves more sophisticated tasks such as sensing and analysis of the environment by nano-structures, and a role for nanotechnology in signal processing, medical imaging, and energy conversion.  Applications include targeted drug delivery and enhancement of components such as transistors, solar cells, light emitting diodes, and diode lasers. Significant improvements in the area of computing are expected from so-called evolutionary computing, allowing faster processing, miniaturized architectures, and increased storage.

Many of the more daring visions of nanotechnology emerge from the original vision of Eric Drexler in the late 1980s (Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology).  These anticipate the development of complex structures for nano-scale fabrication, which employ tiny robots and vehicles.  Such concepts have been criticized sometimes for their tendency to translate into the nano-scale architectures and structures from other scales without paying enough attention to the impact of scaling on the underlying physical laws – these laws often are not manifested at the nano-scale as they are in larger scales.  Alternative approaches that were proposed include "taking a lead from nature" – replacing the previously envisioned “hard” components (e.g.,  nano levers and cogs) by soft materials and importing into the field of nanotechnology biological principles observed in cells and small organisms.  Relevant ideas include the use of “molecular motors” that are incorporated into artificial nanostructures, and miniaturization of existing microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) into what has been dubbed nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS).

Scanning electron microscopy of wood-derived Silicon Carbide.
Image Credit: Katya Vishnyakova and
Gleb Yushin, Drexel University

An emerging field within nanotechnology is known as bionanotechnology, which is a synthetic technology based on the principles and chemical pathways of living organisms. Bionanotechnology looks for connections between molecular biology and nanotechnology – guiding the development of machinery at the nano-scale by  the structure and function of natural nano-machines found in living cells.

As was the case with many new technologies, solid predictions of their course of developments are difficult to make.  If nanotechnology were to follow the paths of other new technologies (digital communications, the Internet) the early predictions – for the first ten years – would tend to overestimate the impact of the technology (much less is achieved compared to predictions); the long-term prediction – for the first 50-75 years – would tend to underestimate that impact (much more is achieved compared to predictions).