There’s a world so small, we can’t even see it. When it comes to sciences, such as biology, chemistry, material science, physics and engineering, we almost take the microscopic for granted. But what about computer science? We often think of computers and all their hardware as something we can look at. But increasingly, teeny tiny computer chips and other devices are being built. And when we say tiny, we mean about one micron, or 1,000 nanometers. That’s about the size of a germ. That technology is called nanotechnology by using lithography to imprint circuits on semiconductor materials. Scientists are hoping to squeeze even more processing power into smaller computing packages.
Pretty cool, huh?
Over the years, nanotechnology has made some big strides. Here are six cool nanotechnologies – both computer related and otherwise – that could change the world as we know it. (For some background reading, see Nanotechnology: The Biggest Little Innovation in Tech.)
Ocean-Cleaning Micro Sponges
Nanotechnology is at the forefront of cleaning oceans, seas and other bodies of water of toxic metals.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researchers have come up with a nanotech coating process that makes it possible for materials to sop up toxic materials in water. They call it "Self-Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports" (which is why, from here on out we’re going to refer to it as SAMMS).
A tube coated with SAMMS acts like a sponge, collecting mercury, lead and other toxic metals from the water. These metals are then recycled and reused for other less harmful purposes. It’s a very effective way of separating heavy metals from water.
Nanotechnology also has benefits in manufacturing and materials sciences. For example, nanocrystals, which are used in oil refinement, solar panels and other things, have been found to be up to three times stronger than their bulk forms. So, nanocrystals of metals may be twice or three times as strong as the original metal. This means that these nanocrystals may be incorporated into the original metals to make them stronger.
Weather Protection for Your Personal Devices
One problem that still plagues personal electronic devices is that, although we carry them with us everywhere all the time, they aren’t designed for all weather or all types of terrain. Nanotechnology, however, has come up with a way to protect them from damage.
In March 2012, Nokia announced work on a superhydrophobic coating that would make its devices water resistant. A hydrophobic coating is what keeps things from sticking to a Teflon pan. Nokia, however, is taking that coating and adding a nanostructure that serves to trap a layer of air on its surface so that water just rolls right off it. So, while hydrophobic coatings may resist water, Nokia’s nanotech coating actually deflects it.
Smaller Devices, More Power
Nanotechnology also can give small devices a whole lot of power and storage ability. In 2007, researchers at IBM announced their findings related to new ways of measuring an individual atom’s magnetic properties. If applied to a device, this could mean extended storage capabilities, allowing, for example, a small iPod to easily store every video uploaded to YouTube, or close to 30,000 full-length movies.
One of the biggest applications of nanotechnology has been in the field of medicine and health care. Nanotechnology is currently being applied to a range of studies to fight cancer and to diagnose – and even treat – Alzheimer’s. Because nanoparticles are so small, they can get into and target areas that previously couldn’t be reached effectively with drugs or other treatments. In terms of nanotech’s applications in the human body, the possibilities are endless.
Making Instant Replicas
Can you imagine burying a tiny model of anything in a box of sand, and then reaching in a few minutes later to pull out a full sized replica of that object? It may sound like something from a science fiction movie, but this is what researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently developing. This smart "sand" contains electropermanent magnets, which allow the particles join together and build patterns. If this technology is perfected, researchers believe it could be used to replicate almost anything.
The stuff of nanotechnology sounds like something from a science fiction novel. In terms of where the technology’s headed, some pretty futuristic possibilities aren’t far off. From curing diseases to removing pollutants in the air or water, right down to bigger developments such as cyborgs that are able to replicate themselves or computers that can count and manipulate your DNA, science is working to prove that smaller is better. Which means some of the big changes happening right before our eyes will arise from something completely invisible.