Richard Feynman’s famed lecture There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom inspired some pioneers on the concept of “nanotechnology.” “Nano” means ten to the power of negative nine, which is a very small number. The name “nanotechnology” comes from the fact that it deals with molecular structures, properties related to manipulating molecules. The fact that the scale of measurement at which they are handled is called nanometer is precisely the reason to why the term was given the name nanotechnology. Here, the story that will unfold will be that of what nanotechnology is, and what the future will be like with nanotechnology.
What is nanotechnology? Going over this question is important because of the enormity of the subject involved. Nanotechnology refers to anything that deals with matter on the nano scale. Every science and engineering that deals with molecules may call itself a sort of nanotechnology. The term was first coined by Norio Taniguchi, who defined it as a set that “consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule.” This is the definition commonly used because most of our minuscule processes fit into this definition.
However, addressing and imagining the future with such a definition can be difficult for some, because such a concept does not inherently have any purpose. A few years after Taniguchi coined the term “nanotechnology,” Eric Drexler came up with the same idea separately and introduced a hypothetical machine that can “replicate itself” in his book Engine of Creation; a variety of phenomena that are implicated by such a thing were introduced in the book. So the latter part of our story will use materials from the pioneers of this concept, and a bit more to imagine the implications on various aspects.
Suppose that the world today has developed “nanites”- machines that can self-replicate and process molecules directly atom by atom. Nature already has something like this, and it is called cell division. Cells have the means to duplicate themselves and process molecules. Like the cells, which are the very basic building blocks of bodies, nanites can become the very basic building blocks of our civilization, instead of steel and glass. The nanites become machines that are programmed to process raw materials into one of themselves, with the ability to process matter by their very atoms. Like ants on cicadas, they will be able to take resources from huge sources of raw elements bit by bit. With such technology, we will be able to engineer things that were once impossible.
One example of the “impossible” is this: Without the help of molecular machines within our cells, we would never be able to synthesize even the simplest of proteins, such as insulin. With nanites, we would be able to synthesize insulin, and even more complex proteins, in bulk as much as necessary because proteins are composed of organic elements readily available anywhere on the planet. This is important because proteins are the important machines of our body. One of the many examples would be protein p53, which guards our cells from turning into cancer. This also means that we would be able to create bulk amounts of lipid membranes with photosynthetic protein complexes, effectively making cheap solar panels of organic origin made possible by nanites.
Another dream would be in the area of medicine. Current drugs which have a variety of complex structures are very expensive to manufacture with classical chemical processes. So what we came up with is genetic engineering. Genes are the code for proteins, which can work as molecular machines of cells that may be used to synthesize the necessary “drugs” as products. But living organisms supposedly display their own agenda. They do not want to waste their energy on components that are quite unnecessary for their survival. Due to this difficulty, synthesizing new drugs through this method takes years, or none at all. We could bypass all of this and make drugs of such complexity with machines such as nanites.
This could also revolutionize 3D printing. Today, 3D printing suffers from resolution problems, limitations on what materials can be used, and problems related to the integrity of the product. The concept of how we could use nanites came from how bone cells form new bone tissues. Bone cells form a matrix of bone cells on the area where they form their bones. The cells excrete extracellular matrices and form calcium phosphate precipitates by pumping calcium and phosphate ions. Likewise, nanites could be used to form a matrices of themselves inside a closed container. From there, they can start by forming small nuclei as a template for the material intended to be printed. Then, the matrices of nanites rearrange themselves around these nuclei to form cavities where they could grow into larger forms. The nanites will then interconnect the pieces and finish the product. This could solve every problem our current 3D printing technology has since it is built atom by atom. The bonds interlocking each atom can be arranged in a structure so that it would have a high durability. It would also resolve resolution because there is no better resolution for tangible matter than atoms.
Above are just the technical advantages of such a technology. With technology such as this, we will truly be unbounded in our ability to spread welfare throughout humanity. The ability to self-replicate, mine resources automatically, and produce goods will enable us to affect our society, environment, and further development for the good of all. In elaboration, self-replication allows each nanite to proliferate. When looking down on a microscope on a culture of bacteria, they divide to produce copies of themselves. One becomes two, and two become four and so on. It does not take too long for them to form a visible structure in a short period of time. This can be similar to nanites: By feeding them
energy and resources, they can process the resources into themselves. The fun part is that they will not need refining plants and paved factories to do this. The final products are nanites, which will be the same as processed, ready-to-use resources. What this means is that the supply will be orders of the magnitude above and demand would be completed
within no time. Resources will be so cheap, they will be no more valuable than dirt.
This means a lot. That is because today, we do not use eco-friendly technologies as often because of the cost. When that cost approaches zero, it would benefit us more to use the resources we have to restore our environment, provide civil infrastructure, and restore our tropical forests from the farmlands. A simple example would be solar power. Today, solar power is not a very economic choice for power, but is known as eco-friendly power. As such, not enough power can be afforded from just solar power. As mentioned before, cheap organic solar panels could be manufactured from such a hypothetical device. It would solve the problem of cost. That’s not all. Having a photosynthetic solar panel would mean it would consume carbon dioxide from the air to create glucose. The glucose will then be produced to form a hydrogen gradient in order to generate power. So when
not all power is used from these solar panels, it could also be used to absorb carbon emissions, and produce food such as sugar.
What has been mentioned is only a fraction of the implications of nanites. It may seem magical. It may seem impossible. But there are a number of scientists who see this as possible. It may one day be the technology that will solve our problems. It will also be able to serve as the foundation of our society to focus its attention on progression. The possession of nanites is all that stands from all of the above and more. But when we foresee such great power to emerge, we must also be prepared to harness it with responsibility. We have come to realize that science and technology have no inherent purpose or alignment of good or evil. That is our choice to make. But with this in mind,
we could progress in the direction of the dream that we’re dreaming today.
김태범 (고분자공학과) .
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