Nanotechnology – The Science of the Small

Could the local water works be harnessed to fuel your car? Scientists think they just may. Researchers at Sandia National Labs intend to complete development of a prototype solar cell that will convert plain water into combustible fuel! They have already demonstrated concept feasibility. Such cells, along with water, could replace oil as an automotive fuel of choice. Is this for real? How is it possible?

Water is number one fighting fires. But what if we break it down into its component parts? You remember science class, right? That's where they taught us water is made up of 2 atoms of hydrogen combined with a single atom of oxygen. Hydrogen, the most abundant element on earth, is highly explosive. Oxygen is necessary for any type of combustion. In their singular states the components of water are a burning recipe for fuel.

Sandia scientists have also developed a robot that can move, pick up, and drop a payload. Not a big deal you say? What if I told you that 20 of these androids can stand side-by-side across the width (not length) of a human hair; impressed now? Called 'motor proteins' these soldiers can be designed to seek each other out and self-assemble in predictable patterns. Nature self-assembles everything in predictable patterns, both flora and fauna. We are just now beginning to learn mother's secrets.

THE SCIENCE OF THE SMALL

Hail the world of Nano-technology, the science of the small. You'll be singing this word "nano" a lot. From the Greek word for dwarf, you just can not get any smaller. How small? Well, it would take 80,000 nano-meters to equal the width of that human hair we just discussed. Now that's small.

This science allows us to manipulate at the atomic level for the first time.
Re-arrange the atoms of water, dirt and air, and we can create rice, or corn. If we re-arrange the atoms of coal, we can create diamonds. Or should I say, this is being done, now! Boston based Apollo Diamonds creates what it calls 'cultured diamonds' that are actually "indistinguishable" from mined diamonds. They are real. Jewelers can not tell the difference!

Diamonds are a $ 60 billion industry annually. This technology promises to lower the price of diamonds by at least a third initially. What implications does this have for the tightly held global diamond trade? Can gold be far behind? And will this have implications for currency exchange?

Amazingly a survey of US adults found more than half confessing no knowledge of nanotechnology at all. Only 16% of those surveyed claim "some" familiarity with the topic. Observers of nanotechnology disagree as to whether or not this is a single industry. But none disagree on the effect it will absolutely have on our lives, indeed on the very length of our lives.

THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?

Just as we now have synthetic motor oils, soon we will be able to create synthetic red and white blood cells, even replacements for ailing organs.

The implications for medicine and for life are intense. Nanotechnology and medicine will be one and the same. And we may not have long to wait. In 2003, an NYU professor shared a top ten list of hurdles nanotechnology would have to surmount to be fully viable. In just the past three years, three of these ten have been conquered.

Some of the greatest potential lies in gene therapy. Nano-genes will replace diseased ones with genetically correct copies eliminating genetic based diseases. Occasionally we can even reverse the effects of cell damage attributed to aging. This could increase human life expectancy tenfold! Do you think this is science fiction? Read on!

The Methuselah Foundation encourages research into the causes and control of aging. They award prizes for research in this area. Transgenic mice have already been developed to possess higher than usual levels of the antioxidant enzyme 'catalase.' Cells employ catalase to eliminate free radicals which cause cell damage resulting in aging, as well as cancers. The genetically corrected mice have life spans 20% longer than their control mice brethren. Imagine adding 15 or 20 healthy years to your life!

Nano-bacteria could clear blood-borne infections in minutes rather than the weeks it takes for antibiotics. Scientists at NEC are reportedly developing a fast 'bio-nano' chip to conduct a complete blood analysis in little more than 60 minutes. (Today's med labs utilizing gel blocks take many more hours). Their chip recognizes proteins known to be present before a disease manifests itself. These diagnostic nano-grains bind with targeted proteins, causing an intent signal reaction. If trials go well, they'll be in use within 5 years. Comprehensive health assessments utilizing this nano-technology could cost as little as $ 100.

Chemotherapy involves poisoning a patient's body with toxic medication in a race to kill cancer cells before the cancer kills the patient. Serious side effects come from the solutions used to dilute the cancer killing agents. Nano-medicines have very high surface to volume ratios, resulting in far fewer and milder side effects. Greater tolerance for these nano-oncologics allow for dosage doses delivered at tighter intervals.

Nobel Prize winning chemist Rick Smalley (1943-2005) was fond of posing the question, "Am I living in the last generation to die of cancer, or the first generation to be saved by nanotechnology?" We're that close!

SUPER COMPUTERS

Nano-materials promise computers running 200 times faster than today's swiftest chips. Researchers at the University of Illinois have already fabricated such nano-processors. Employing current technology a micro-chip grows more crowded to run at ever faster speeds, the heat generated tensions to melt the entire silicon based circuit.

The ability to immediately absorb and process vast amounts of data creates opportunities only imaginable previously: significant increases in reaction times for defense systems; the allocation of road / air space for traffic management; even preventing autos from colliding with each other.

MATERIALS FIRST

While the greatest ultimate impact comes from the fields of medicine and biology, it is in materials and chemicals that the first fruits are being picked. Everything can be made better through restructuring, or nano-structuring: lighter, stronger, cheaper. Materials that do not exist can be created with new and unique properties. As the initial cost of these materials falls, forwarder uses will naturally result.

Tennis racks and golf clubs on the market today from both Wilson and Babolat are now twice as strong. Motorola is reportedly developing a 40 "HDTV flat screen using nano-materials that will retail for only $ 400. Rechargeable batteries that take only one minute to regain 80% capacity have been invented by Toshiba. the charge without any deterioration to the electrode. A planned launch will target hybrid autos. But this technology applies equally to your cell phone and laptop.

In the nanotech world, if you can imagine it, you can create it: automotive panels that will not dent; paints that will not scratch, peel, or fade; sunscreens that truly are; stain-proof fabrics that actually change shade for body temperature control; odorless disposable diapers; fire-proof building materials. The future is bright indeed.

INVESTORS GUN SHY

More than 30 nations have provided seed funding to ensure their people are not left behind. The US Nanotechnology Initiative was funded to the tune of $ 800 million in 2004 alone. The federal allocation is now over $ 1 billion annually. Forward looking states are jockeying to lure Nano-companies, carroting of course with tax breaks.

After all this opportunity, investors still reeling from the dot-com days, are sticking to the sidelines, 'cept some far sighted capitalists. Smelling potential, private investment flows are now three times greater than the federal outlay.

In the dot-com days all it took to offer an IPO was a desk top PC and a carefully worded business plan determined to take advantage of the "information synergies paradigm." Not so with nanotechnology. This requires real multi-discipline scientifically know how from extensive research and testing. These inventions and innovations are clearly patentable. To date some 3,800 patents have been granted with another 1,700 pending. No college dorm room operations here.

As you can imagine the potential for investors in the right places are colossal. But be careful, some companies are adding 'nano' to their name whether they have anything to do with it or not. Where the money is, so too will be the tricksters.