Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology
An Introduction to the Science
nanotechnology possesses so many technical nuances, it will be important for
decision makers to have a detailed understanding not only of the political and
economic forces behind nanotechnology research, but also the scientific details
of the research itself. Thus, before we can look at making decisions about
nanotechnology, let us first look at what nanotechnology is.
definition of nanotechnology, according to the Birck
at Purdue University,
is “the investigation, design, and manipulation of materials on atomic and
molecular scale.” This is on the scale of one to a few hundred nanometers, or
billionths of a meter. The smallest atom is that of helium, and is about one
tenth of a nanometer wide: it would take several hundred million of these atoms
to line up to a single centimeter of length. To talk about nanotechnology is to
talk about the electrical, chemical or mechanical manipulation of something so small
that it could never be externally lit, as the wavelengths of visible light are
on the order of hundreds of nanometers and would almost certainly pass right
over the atom before refracting and making it visible. By manipulating,
constructing or otherwise studying objects on this scale, nanotechnology can
take advantage of the many unusual properties of nanoscale material, provide an
ever clearer understanding of the nature of matter, and conduct groundbreaking
research into the blurry lines between quantum and mechanical physics.
practical applications consist largely of the use of what are called
“nanoparticles.” Substances used for the manufacture of various products have
historically been formed by chemically combining and treating already existing
substances, until the desired substance is created in sufficient quantity.
While the products of chemical study are incredibly useful, there is an
inherent limitation in chemistry’s processes, because whatever it seeks to
create must be derived in one way or another from already existing substances,
a task which frequently requires complex manipulation and intermediary stages.
With nanotechnology, desired substances can effectively be designed from the
ground up, creating the so-called nanoparticles whose shape and makeup, and
thus their other physical properties like conductivity and permeability, are
designed from their inception. Though this process can be relatively slow –
even relatively simple procedures for preparing usable samples (again, on the
scale of one to a few hundred billionths
of a meter) can take about three and a half days (Graugnard, Electronic Conductance…) – its products
have boundless potential.
A prime example
of this is the manipulation of the carbon nanotube, a tight and uniform
construction of carbon atoms that can occur naturally but can also be
synthesized, whose dimensions make it an ideal environment for physicists to
model the otherwise elusive 1-D environment (Graunard, Nanotube Data Page). Nanotubes like this are the subject of intense
study in the nanotechnology field, and they and other nanoparticles are already
being incorporated into modern integrated circuits (Sands). Relatively smaller
nanoparticles have the capability to pierce the membranes of biological cells,
which could potentially be used as a great tool in delivering drugs to specific
cellular targets (Sands). In fact, recent research at the Stanford University
led by Professor Hongjie Dai has even shown how carbon nanotubes can bond with
certain types of RNA, pierce the surface of T cells in a culture, deliver the
RNA to the T cells, and in doing so potentially empower them against the
frightening power of HIV itself.
The reality of
nanotechnology today is a world of new possibilities, with new research coming
out daily. A link between nanoscale film and optic nerve endings was discovered
by researches at the University of Texas
Medical Branch at Galveston
and the University of Michigan,
opening the way for creating artificial retinas (Snowcrash). Researchers at
Purdue have succeeded in using nanoscale needles to deflect specific
wavelengths of light, an important first step towards practical invisibility of
an object (Venere). Electronic processors made of DNA and enzymes have already
toppled speed records for silicon processor power in basic computation
(Lovgren), and research on their practical applications continues to move
forward. These are just a few examples of what nanotechnology has already
achieved, and is continuing to develop.
The future of nanotechnology is
even more impressive, but also more daunting. It promises to explore the outer
limits of computational size and speed (Lovgren), allow groundbreaking
experiments on the subject of quantum mechanics (Anderson),
and create a source of electricity from bloodflow displacing the ions in nanowires in the bloodstream (Gardner).
There is even talk of nanoelectronics being a vital step in developing
artificial intelligence on par with the intelligence of a human. However, as
there are many hopes for the future, there are also many fears, including the
idea of a personal interviewee of mine that nanotechnology is about swarms of
nanoscopic robots that can reduce large objects to dust in seconds. While this
idea is largely spawned from science fiction novels, the research in
nanoelectronics that might allow such behavior is well underway, and as
Professor Timothy Sands of the Birck Nanotechnology Center has said, “history
has shown….that today’s science fiction can become tomorrow’s reality….” Professor
Sands stresses that nanotechnologists must exercise caution in their research.
Images of Nanotechnology:
Fig. 2 Artist's rendering of DNA and enzymes acting as a computer.
Photograph courtesy of Kobi Benenson/Adapted from
PDB ID: 1FOK
D.A. Wah, J.A. Hirsch, L.F. Dorner, I. Schildkraut, A.K. Aggarwal. Structure of the Multimodular Endonuclease FokI Bound to DNA.
Nature 388 pp. 97-100 (1997)
Fig. 3: An artist's rendering of a nanobot
working on the molecular level. From 21stCentury.co.uk - specifically, here.
Fig. 4: Images of T Cell HIV receptors before (top) and after (bottom) their treatment with special RNA from nanotubes
Credit: Zhuang Liu, Stanford University
Fig. 5: A very close zoom in on lengthy bundles of carbon nanotubes;
the bar on the bottom indicates 100 micrometers (millionths of a
From the Swiss Nanoscience Institute.