Nanotech changes everything

Written by Rick Spence

Lighter, stronger golf clubs. More stain-repellant clothing. Hardier sunscreens, and cosmetics that deliver vitamins A and E deep into the skin. With products such as these now on the market, nanotechnology is already disrupting a wide range of industries. But with billions of dollars being poured into the technology around the world, the pace of change is just starting to speed up.

In math, “nano” means one-billionth. Nanotechnology deals with particles between 1 and 100 nanometres in size-from a billionth of a metre (about the width of two atoms) up to a 10-millionth. The human hair, by comparison, is 200,000 nanometres thick. The promise of nanotechnology stems from a unique phenomenon. At the nano level (below 100 nanometres), the property of a substance changes. Cut a piece of bread in half and you have two pieces of bread; slice a 200-nanometre molecule in half and you may alter its density, weight or colour. “The change can be quite dramatic,” says Nils Petersen, director general of the National Institute for Nanotechnology in Edmonton. This “lab on a chip” means scientists using souped-up electron microscopes can now manipulate molecules to precisely manufacture brand-new substances (even self-propelled molecular motors) never found in nature.

The results could be breathtaking. We are already seeing harder and more durable materials. In electronics, increasing miniaturization is generating bigger disk drives and ever more powerful computers. In health and medicine, we will see baroscopic probes that measure a body’s health, and new weapons to fight genetic disease at the level of the gene. Industries that stand to be revolutionized include plastics, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, appliances, construction, communications, security, defence, energy and the environment-in short, just about everything. By 2015, the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Foundation predicts that nanotechnology will boost the U.S. economy by US$1 trillion a year.

Some call nanotech “matter on demand.” “It’s a whole new way of looking at product innovation,” says Petersen. For the next five or 10 years, he says, the innovation will be incremental-better, stronger, more efficient products at better prices. Your business will have to keep up with nanotrends just to stay current. Beyond that time, however, all bets are off-just as the opportunities will be unlimited.

“You will see transformational events,” says Petersen. Nanotechnology will unite chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers in unprecedented numbers to solve common problems, and he believes these collaborations will work wonders. “We will create new devices, new kinds of properties-new things we don’t understand yet.”

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