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Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology


An Introduction to the Science

Discussing the Issue:

-With the Government

-With Business

-With the Military

A Specific Example: NanoFET

References & Links

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Directing the Invisible: Citizen Involvement in Nanotechnology

An Introduction to the Science

Because 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.

The rudimentary definition of nanotechnology, according to the Birck Nanotechnology Center 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.

Nanotechnology’s 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:

Artist's rendering of DNA and enzymes acting as a computer

Fig. 2 Artist's rendering of DNA and enzymes acting as a computer.
Photograph courtesy of Kobi Benenson/Adapted from
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)

An artist's rendering of a nanobot working on the molecular level

Fig. 3: An artist's rendering of a nanobot working on the molecular level. From - specifically, here.

Comparison of T Cells before and after their treatment with RNA from nanotubes

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

A very close zoom-in on a bundle of carbon nanotubes

Fig. 5: A very close zoom in on lengthy bundles of carbon nanotubes; the bar on the bottom indicates 100 micrometers (millionths of a meter).
From the Swiss Nanoscience Institute.

Last updated:  5/02/2007


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