By Robert Lamb
Do you remember your childhood building blocks? You probably started out with large, wooden cubes and turned to increasingly smaller blocks as you grew older and the structures you created became more complex. That miniature version of the space shuttle wouldn’t have been nearly as accurate (or cool) with big bricks, right?
The building blocks get even smaller in the real world — so much so that even an optical microscope won’t reveal them. They exist at the nanoscale of things, where a single-walled carbon nanotube is scarcely 1 nanometer thick. To put that in relatable terms, you’d have to line up 100,000 of these nanotubes side by side in order to equal the 100-micrometer diameter of a single strand of hair .
Nanomaterials occur naturally all around us, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that scientists developed the tools to see and manipulate such minuscule building blocks as individual molecules and atoms. By directing matter at the nanoscale, scientists achieve greater control over a material’s properties, ranging from its strength and melting point to its fluorescence and electrical conductivity. We call this field nanotechnology, and it involves such diverse disciplines as chemistry, biology and physics.
Currently, more than 800 commercial products rely on nanomaterials, according to the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative. To capitalize on nanotechnology, however, we need to mass-produce at the nanoscale. So we enter the world of nanomanufacturing. Here are 10 ways it will change the landscape of industry forever.
10. Rise of the Super Drugs
Nanotechnology allows us to mess with matter molecularly, which is great news for the pharmaceutical industry. After all, every profitable brand-name medication ultimately breaks down to a particular, and often synthetic, molecular structure. This structure interacts with molecules in the human body, and that’s where the profitable magic happens.
Just consider the botulinum toxin in Botox treatments. The bacteria’s muscle-weakening abilities aid in the treatment of muscle pain, in addition to smoothing wrinkles. Doctors typically inject Botox into the target tissue since it can’t pass through the skin. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell Nanomanufacturing Center, however, aim to create a topical Botox cream. Their secret? Simply attach the toxin to a nanoparticle, allowing it to hitch a ride through the skin.
Meanwhile, other drugs suffer from poor solubility, resulting in inadequate or delayed absorption into the human body and, consequently, a need for greater dosage levels. Yet if we reduce the size of the drug particles to the nanoscale, then absorption rates increase and dosage levels decrease.
Finally, nanotechnology enables scientists to knit together tiny drug fragments into single “super-molecules” — such as the proposed morphine-cannabis painkiller. Envisioned by the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, this pharmaceutical tag team would consist of a morphine molecule and a THC molecule (THC being the intoxicating part of marijuana) joined by a single linking particle. Once in the body, the linking bit would break free, releasing the morphine and THC in equal, targeted doses.
Mass production at the nanoscale will enable pharmaceutical companies to create increasingly effective medication.
Nanomanufacturing will change far more than the medications we take; it also will alter the nature of drug delivery. Researchers at Northwestern University are developing drug devices made from nano-diamonds, which prevent medicine from releasing too swiftly into the body. With this technology, doctors will be able to implant months’ worth of medication directly into the affected tissue area.
But nano-manufacturing will provide far more than mere convenience — it will save lives. Just consider today’s anticancer drugs. Chemotherapy treatments often damage healthy cells as well as cancerous ones, leading to the full array of side effects typically associated with cancer treatments. By studying the inner workings of cell-seeking viruses, scientists hope to engineer nanostructures capable of delivering medication directly to targeted tissue.
Both of these nanoscale biomedical technologies enable smarter and minimally invasive treatment. Just imagine a day when chemotherapy doesn’t wipe out the entire body and when implanted nanostructures administer your daily medication for you.
8. Fresh-grown Organs All Around
Modern organ transplant technology continues to save lives, but emerging biomedical nanotechnology aims to streamline the process. In some cases, it even eliminates the need for an organ donor. Why worry about harvesting a new heart from a fresh cadaver when we can grow a new one instead?
By using a patient’s own stem cells, researchers have successfully grown human bladders and even hearts. In 2011, doctors made history by transplanting a bio-artificial trachea into a cancer patient . The key is to have accurate, organ-shaped scaffolding for the cells to grow on — such as a collagen “ghost heart” (a donor heart stripped of its cells) or a glass replica of the patient’s trachea.
Nanotechnology introduces even more exciting possibilities here, such as the use of nano-engineered gel to help nerve cells re-grow around spinal injuries. As for growing new organs wholesale, the future is also bright. Researchers at Rice University and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, have developed an organ sculpting technique that employs metal nanoparticles suspended in a magnetic field. This 3-D environment encourages the suspended cells to grow more naturally and may enable the development of complex, 3-D systems such as the heart or lung.
In the future, researchers hope to program detailed magnetic fields tailored to specific organs. So imagine a future where human organs aren’t merely harvested but custom-manufactured to fit the patient.
7. The World’s Smallest Laboratory
State-of-the-art medical diagnostic technology helps physicians save countless lives. There’s one catch: Much of this equipment requires a modern laboratory and a highly trained staff to operate it. Take this sort of diagnostic tool out of an air-conditioned, sterile and electrically stable environment and transport it to a distant outpost in the developing world, and guess what happens?
That’s right: The technology fails to function. Luckily, nanotechnology comes to the rescue with so-called lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technology. Such nanodevices would boast high-tech laboratory functions on a single, tiny chip capable of processing extremely small fluid volumes. Through lasers and electrical fields, scientists hope to manipulate these fluids and tiny particles of bacteria, viruses and DNA for analysis. The possible applications range from swift blood analysis during the initial outbreak of an epidemic to improved food safety screenings.
It all comes down to nano-manufacturing, however, as such technology would only provide a significant advantage if cheap and plentiful. A single application of a disease vaccine, after all, won’t fight off an epidemic. You need doses for multiple patients in several locations. Likewise, an LOC-enabled health scanner would only make a difference if it were standard issue in the field.
6. Honey, the Walls Are Bleeding Again
Even the most devoted horror movie fan would probably shy away from a house that oozes blood whenever you scratch the wall or suffer a mild earthquake. Yet this is exactly the sort of reality nanotechnology can bring into the world. And if nano-manufacturing makes the fruits of this technology available globally, then you may very well spend your retirement years in a bleeding house of your own.
In this case, however, bleeding walls are a good thing. Just as blood from a cut clots into a sealing scab, proposed nano-polymer particles in a house’s walls will liquefy when squeezed by an earthquake or structural collapse. This liquid will then flow into any cracks and transform back to a solid state.
The University of Leeds’ Nano-Manufacturing Institute plans to build a prototype on a Greek mountainside — with an estimated price tag of $15 million . The technology is too costly and too “bleeding-edge” (get it?) to make an impact on the construction industry just yet, but nano-manufacturing techniques could allow buildings around the world to benefit from this amazing self-healing technology.
5. Super-strong Materials
When it comes to nanotechnology, there’s no denying the abundant applications for carbon nanotubes, or carbon sealed up into cylindrical tubes. Materials forged from these tubes are both lightweight and incredibly strong, since the carbon atoms in each tube are so tightly bonded.
The applications are endless. Virtually any synthetic structure could be made lighter and more durable. In addition to improving existing structures, carbon nanotubes could make impossible structures a reality. Just consider the premise of a space elevator: a direct, physical connection between the surface of the Earth and a satellite tethered in geosynchronous orbit. Such a structure would enable humans to transport large payloads into space without explosive rocketry and costly heavy-lift vehicles.
Operating space elevators would be a game changer for not only the space exploration industry but also the energy industry. Imagine an orbital solar collector that wires energy right back down to the planet’s surface. Although the necessary carbon nanotube technology is already within grasp, the ability to cheaply mass-produce the material would move such a massive project even closer to reality .
4. Will Nano-bots Clean Up the Mess?
Nanomanufacturing will revolutionize the oil industry, enabling stronger pipelines and more effective pollution detectors as well. Plus, in the event of an oil spill or leak, tiny nanobots might just come to the rescue, “feeding” on oil as part of the cleanup effort.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are currently working on a pack of autonomous, solar-powered robots called the Seaswarm. While this 16-foot (5-meter) long technology is hardly nano in scale, it does implement nanotechnology. Each Seaswarm, which already exists in prototype form, will use a conveyor belt lined with oil-absorbing nanowire fabric. The unique, hydrophobic, meshed structure of the fabric grabs the oil molecules but not the water molecules. These properties allow the fabric to absorb a reported 20 times its weight in oil, which can then be released when the fabric is heated .
How much difference will the mass-production of such nanotechnology make in the event of an oil spill? A swarm of oil-absorbing robots potentially could clean up a disaster involving millions of barrels worth of fossil fuels within a single month .
3. Tiny Oil Hunters
Speaking of oil, if you want to send a robot into an oil reservoir, you’re going to have to think small — nanorobotics small. After all, fossil fuel deposits don’t occur in large, spacious underground caverns but in the pores of solid rock. The oil travels through tiny pore throats that are tinier than the average germ . So, if you want to build a robot petite enough to explore an oil reservoir, you’ll need to design it at the nanoscale.
Scientists and oil companies envision a day when trillions of minuscule, water-soluble carbon clusters can be injected deep underground and then pulled back to the surface. Geologists would then be able to note changes in the chemical makeup of the carbon clusters to decipher such details as temperature and pressure in the oil reserve. Other, more advanced plans even call for nano-robots capable of transmitting their findings back to the surface.
2. Nano-empowered Batteries and Solar Panels
Whether facing the battery death of a beloved smartphone or the limitations of solar technology, nano-manufacturing will eventually solve your problem. Not only will nanotechnology enable the production of longer-lasting batteries and more efficient solar sails, it will also do it cheaply.
The limitations of both batteries and solar panels tend to boil down to the materials used in the electrode portion of a battery. This material is the conductor through which an electric current enters or leaves a solution in a battery. Typical electrode materials can only transmit a limited electrical charge. Nanotechnology, however, gives scientists the ability to enlarge the surface area of the electrode material at the nanoscale without increasing the material size. The trick is to boost the complexity of the material at the nanoscale.
For example, imagine two blocks of cheese of equal size: one solid cheddar and the other Swiss cheese riddled with pores and holes. Due to the interior walls of the holes, the Swiss cheese benefits from greater surface area than the solid cheddar.
Scientists have drawn inspiration for such technology from marine sponges, which assemble their complex, crystalline structures at the molecular level. And it’s that sort of assembly that factors into the last item on our list.
1. Some Self-assembly Required
All of these nano-manufacturing and nanotechnology advancements will undoubtedly change the face of industry forever, but the biggest game changer of them all will come in the form of self-assembly. The smaller the building blocks become, the closer we get to the molecular-scale building techniques of nature itself.
Earlier applications of nanotechnology implemented a top-down approach, in which scientists use instruments such as the atomic force microscope to manipulate matter at the nanoscale. The bottom-up approach, however, actually builds at the molecular level. The difference between the two approaches is not unlike that between Victor Frankenstein’s stitching together body parts to make a new human and nature simply growing one up from genetic material.
In the future, nano-manufacturing will take place entirely at a scale invisible to the naked eye, as nano-bots construct everything from delicate fabrics and super-strong steel to computing components.
The future of industry all comes down to the size and complexity of the building blocks.