The past and future of nanotechnology

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Nanotechnology feels like a future perfect technology that we have been on the cusp of for a very long time. I remember being a child and watching spy shows on television about people who had been injected with nanotechnology to make them perform better in the field. Yet in reality, nanotechnology dates back far earlier than my childhood and yours too. Let’s take a look at exactly what nanotechnology is and where it all began.

Depending on your definition of nanotechnology there are two start dates. Some people argue that nanotechnology began in the fourth century while others say it all started in 1989. That difference in definition is all about insight and control. 

We can define nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter at an atomic or subatomic level. If we take this definition we can easily say that nanotechnology has been used since the fourth century. Back then craftsmen used colloidal gold and silver in the creation of special chalices. These nanomaterials would react differently to light depending on the direction of its source allowing a beautiful ornate chalice to shine green or red depending on the direction.  However, how much the craftsmen actually manipulated these atomic materials could be questioned. They certainly took them and enmeshed them into a chalice but they didn’t manipulate the atomic structure itself.

Fast forward to 1989 when two men, Don Eigler and Erhard Schweitzer successfully manipulated 35 atoms for the first time in history. They manipulated the atoms to spell out the letters IBM and in doing so changed the world. This was the first time it was shown that we can use atoms directly for our benefit. 

Since that point, we have become more and more used to these nanotechnologies and they are now present in so many of our innovations. Whether it is cosmetics for your face or secret weapons for the CIA, nanotechnology is now present in nearly all industries. Yet it is true that we are still just understanding how to put it to its full advantage.

One area that is currently being researched is exactly what we saw in the spy shows twenty years ago. Scientists believe that they will soon be able to inject people with nanobots that can treat diseases within the body. One Israeli team is leading the way as they have developed nanobots from DNA and started to test them on cockroaches. 

Another team in the US is using nanotechnology to support plant growth and have found that by using these technologies they can increase photosynthesis by 100%. However, the potential of this application is far greater as it could be used to great far more efficient solar power energy sources and to build materials that can repair themselves. 

These nanotechnologies are just some of the ideas that are starting to go beyond the prototype phase but many scientists argue that the age of discovery is just beginning. Moore’s law states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit double about every two years. Actually Moore’s law is more of an observation than law but it has been upheld for many years. Many people now felt that Moore’s law has ended as we have made technology as small as possible. Nanotechnology may still prove Moore’s law right for many years to come.

Whether Moore’s law is proved wrong or right is not important. The implication of Moore’s law was the constant and ongoing technological acceleration. This will continue unabated for years to come. If anything it will only accelerate further in the coming years as we start to push past and break the boundaries of aging technologies and move to new ones.