The Rise of Nano Technology

If you have heard about nanotechnology at all, you may be aware of its science-fiction-sounding hype. Proponents picture a future in which tiny bots would magically repair tissue to prolong our life span. On the dark side is the disturbing vision of “gray goo,” where self-replicating nanodevices destroy the planet. The reality of the burgeoning field of nanotech, however, is hardly less startling in its transformative potential. Some have proclaimed it “the next industrial revolution.”

“Nanotechnology” broadly applies to control of materials and components only a few billionths of a meter in size. Already manufacturers sell several hundred products that use nanotech, mainly skin lotions. Next up are advances in biotechnology and electronics–and a merging of the two.

Consider, for instance, molecular building blocks called bis-amino acids, which chemists string together into protein-like structures. Applications include medicines, enzymes for catalyzing reactions, sensors, nanoscale valves and computer storage devices. Other researchers are using natural molecular machines to process information: they receive input from other biological molecules and output a tangible result, such as a signal or a therapeutic drug.

Nanoscience advances are pushing traditional electronics in new directions as well. George Gruner describes applications that encompass sensors, solar cells, electronic paper and bendable touch screens. Imagine a morning “paper” with headlines that change as news breaks.

Or how about an invisibility cloak? Harry A. Atwater explains how optical signals squeeze through minuscule wires, producing so-called plasmons. Plasmonic circuits could help to move lots of data and improve the resolution of microscopes, the efficiency of light-emitting diodes, and the sensitivity of detectors. Such materials could alter the electromagnetic field around an object to such an extent that it would become invisible. The nanoregime offers enormous promise indeed.

IBM Research's nanoMRI microscope

IBM Research’s nanoMRI microscope

IBM Research scientists, in collaboration with the Center for Probing the Nanoscale at Stanford University, have demonstrated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with volume resolution 100 million times finer than conventional MRI. This result, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), signals a significant step forward in tools for molecular biology and nanotechnology by offering the ability to study complex 3D structures at the nanoscale. By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.