January 31st, 2011

The field of nanotechnology is vast.  It deals with manipulating matter on a very small scale (think atoms and molecules) as well as creating devices ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers in at least one dimension.  Some day in the near future nanotechnology will have applications in electronics, biomaterials, and medicine, among others.

Carbon Nanotubes

One particularly interesting area involves carbon nanotubes, which are allotropes of carbon that have a cylindrical nanostructure.  They are currently being used in a number of different settings, including in some of Easton-Bell Sports’ bicycle components.  I think the more interesting facet of carbon nanotubes lies in its potential future applications.  MIT is currently working on combat jackets that are able to stop bullets.  Future bridges may be made of a material that consists of carbon nanotubes, replacing the steel bridges of today.  Synthetic muscles made of carbon nanotubes may be able to replace damaged or missing muscle tissue.  At the University of California, researchers have found that carbon nanotubes are well-suited as scaffold material for bone formation.

Of course, my discussion of nanotechnology would not be complete without taking a look at the so-called threats.  One of the more popular scenarios is the aptly-named “grey goo” disaster which would involve self-replicating nanobots consuming everything on Earth.  Sounds a little far-fetched to me, but the History channel put an interesting spin on it.  It suggested a scenario where some day in the future it could be common practice for billions of nanobots to be used to clean up oil spills in the ocean by consuming the hydrocarbons in the oil.  The real fun begins when a programming error causes the nanobots to consume all carbon-based objects, leaving the planet a barren wasteland ruled by its destroyers.

There are also other, more realistic, problems associated with nanotechnology.  People who handle nanotechnology will be exposed to its waste particles, which can be harmful – similar to asbestos fibers.  An unregulated market could cause damage to the environment.  There are many uncertainties as to the future of nanotechnology.  One thing that is certain, however, is that despite its threats, both real and imagined, nanotechnology is here to stay.

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