What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the process of manipulating matter one atom or molecule at a time. All matter is made up of atoms and the property of that matter depends on how the atoms are arranged. For example, diamonds, coal, carbon and graphite (pencil lead) are all made up of pure carbon. The difference in their properties (hardness of a diamond vs soft graphite) is the way the atoms are arranged. It is thought that if we can harness the movement of atoms on a molecular level we can rearrange the carbon atoms in graphite to make diamonds! This is but one small example of the power of nanotechnolgy. This technology is still in its infancy. Below are a few examples of some of the incredible advances that we have made in nanotechnolgy over the last 10 years.


This is incredible - the 'Nano USA' written here is actually written with 112 carbon monoxide (CO) molecules using a copper surface as the 'canvas'. This was written with a scanning tunneling microscope at IBM's Almaden Research Center, San Jose, California. Each letter is 4 nanometers high by 3 nanometers wide, and it would take about 250 million of them to fill the cross section of a human hair! That's a quarter of a billion letters!

Scientists at Osaka University laboratories have created the smallest object ever made by humans. The bull sculpture (picture, right) measures 10 microns long and 7 microns high. A micron, or micrometer, is one one-thousandth of a millimeter making the bull smaller than a red blood cell. The bull was made from synthetic resin using two-photon photo-polymerization, a process which involves expensive equipment.The scientists chose to sculpt a bull because of the challenge of its "very sophisticated three-dimensional shape with sharp tips and a smooth and rough body." The level of detail is amazing.

Here is an electron-microscope image of the world's smallest guitar! It's length is about that of the bull above and about 1/20th the width of a single human hair! Its strings have a width of about 50 billionths of a meter (the size of approximately 100 atoms). Plucking the tiny strings would produce a high-pitched sound at the inaudible frequency of approximately 10 megahertz - we are still waiting for them to make a tuner! This guitar was made by Cornell researchers with a single silicon crystal.

Carbon Nanotubes
Carbon nanotubes were discovered in 1991 by Sumio Iijima. They are made of pure carbon from a graphite starting material. They are one of the strongest materials known to man! Depending upon their atomic arrangements, nanotubes can act like conducting metals or like semiconductors - unexpected properties for pure carbon compounds. Nanotubes are so small that if you had a single nanotube sufficiently long to span the 250,000 miles between earth and the moon it could be loosely rolled into a ball the size of a poppyseed! Nanotubes are synthesized several different ways and can take different shapes and forms based on how they are produced. They are structurally stable nearly up to a the melting point of graphite, i.e., up to about 3,500 degrees Celsius. The most recent discovery has been making a 'nanothermometer' by filling a nanotube with the metal gallium.
These are all scanning electron micrographs of carbon nanotubes. The discovery of nanotubes was a big step in nanotechnology as these can be used as a building material in the 'nano world'. What's the future of nanotechnology? They are hoping to make 'nano robots' that can move matter an atom at a time. Many propose that we build mini machines that can build more 'nano robots' so in essence the machines would be self replicating. They are in the process of building a mini computer. This is a real possibility since nanotubes can act as circuits and transisters. If we can harness this power, buildings would be built at the molecular level by tiny machines; these little robots would roam our body repairing damage and curing illnesses. However, there is the fear that this technolgy would get out of control and literally tear everything apart one atom at a time. And if nanorobots were built from nanotubes, it would be nearly impossible to destroy them because of their high melting point and structural stability. For better or for worse, we are on the brink of a new revolution - nanotechnology!

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