Small scale, big ideas

Happy birthday, nanotechnology! It’s been 20 years since the first striking demonstration of the possibilities of manipulating matter at the molecular scale.


Happy birthday, nanotechnology! It’s been 20 years since the first striking demonstration of the possibilities of manipulating matter at the molecular scale, when IBM researcher Don Eigler used an atomic force microscope to shift xenon atoms around to spell out his employer’s name.



But nanotechnology is still far from ubiquitous. So let’s have a look 20 years in the future, and see where the smallest branch of engineering might take us.



The ‘blockbuster’ application of nanotechnology is the idea of microscopic robots which could be injected into our bloodstreams to act as surgeons, much like the movie Fantastic Voyage but without Raquel Welch. But if you take a realistic look at what’s actually possible, these robots are most likely to be highly advanced drug delivery systems, running off the glucose in the bloodstream and sniffing out the telltale secretions from cancerous cells before unleashing their payload. So, more like smart chemotherapy than a mini-submarine toting a laser.



Another area where we’re now starting to see commercialisation is in surface coatings; window glass that repels water and dirt, and ‘smart surfaces’ that make military aircraft invisible to radar. The structure of these materials are designed — often built up from complex chemicals that can self-assemble, much like proteins folding to make enzymes, and this is the avenue that research is following.



Looking at these examples, you could say that nanotechnology — real nanotechnology, not the stuff from science fiction — is actually a branch of chemistry. Chemists would certainly say so, and have been, with some asperity, for the past 20 years. But it’s not quite that.



It’s on a boundary where chemistry meets engineering, and as we’ve seen in The Engineer many times, it’s on the boundaries where the interesting things happen.



Stuart Nathan
Special Reports Editor – a bit sorry about the lack of Raquel Welch