The Future of Nanotechnology

The Future of Nanotechnology

The future of nanotechnology has been the subject scientific and nonscientific speculation including dystopian visions in popular culture that predict self-replicating nanoparticles taking part in massive assaults on humanity and the environment.  An example of such a scenario is given in Michael Crichton’s popular novel Prey where “grey goo” self-replicates and overwhelms the world. These kinds of dire outlooks have been expressed in the past when some technologies entered our lives (for example, robotics in the 1940s and 1950s), and the products of nanotechnology are no different when it comes to speculation about their impact on our lives. However, in many ways, current products of nanotechnology are ordinary – reinforced composites for bicycle frames, stain-resistant clothes, better cosmetics and healthcare products, and medical diagnostic tests.

Some authors who consider the future of nanotechnology differentiate among incremental nanotechnology, evolutionary nanotechnology, and radical nanotechnology. 

Incremental nanotechnology is represented, for example, by the use of nanoscale elements in ordinary products – leading, as in one application, to development of better paints.  There are many products we use today that have been improved through the use of nanotechnology.

Evolutionary nanotechnology involves more sophisticated applications such as sensing and analysis of the environment by nanostructures, signal processing, medical imaging, and energy conversion.  Examples 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.

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

Many of the more daring visions of nanotechnology emerge from the original ideas of Eric Drexler in the late 1980s (Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology).  These anticipate the development of complex structures for nanoscale fabrication which employ tiny robots and vehicles.  At times, the concepts in these visions have been criticized for their tendency to translate architectures and structures from other larger length scales into the nanoscale without paying enough attention to the impact of scaling on the underlying physical laws – these laws often manifest themselves on the nanoscale differently.  

Alternative approaches that were proposed (and are being actively pursued today) include “taking a lead from nature” – replacing the previously envisioned “hard” machinery (e.g., nano levers and cogs) by soft materials using the nanotechnology 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).

Perhaps the best insights into the probable future of nanotechnology is to learn about the current cutting edge work being performed by today’s researchers. Learn more by reading about and listening to IEEE Nanotechnology Distinguished Lecturers whose work reflects advances being made today!

3d Illustration structure of the graphene or carbon surface. Image credit: Rost-9/

Read More