It’s a small world after all


Imagine a machine so small that it is imperceptible to the human eye. Imagine working machines no bigger than a grain of pollen. Imagine thousands of these machines batch fabricated on a single piece of silicon, for just a few pennies each. Imagine a world where gravity and inertia are no longer important, but atomic forces and surface science dominate. Imagine a silicon chip with thousands of microscopic mirrors working in unison, enabling the all optical network and removing the bottlenecks from the global telecommunications infrastructure. Image buying a three centimeter plasma tv for your ant farm. You are now entering the microdomain, a world occupied by an explosive technology known as MEMS. A world of challenge and opportunity, where traditional engineering concepts are turned upside down, and the realm of the “possible” is totally redefined.
MEMS are quietly changing the way you live, in ways that you might never imagine. The device that senses your car has been in an accident, and fires the airbag is a MEMS device. Most new cars have over a dozen MEMS devices, making your car safer, more energy efficient, and more environmentally friendly. MEMS are finding their way into a variety of medical devices, and everyday consumer products. What’s interesting is that the micro machines etched from silicon wafers you see above can go no further and nanotechnology’s focus now is on manipulating matter on an atomic or molecular scale.


In the world of the future, the one Hollywood likes to conjure
up, the human race has one implacable enemy: science. This fiction
has taken many forms, including lethal epidemics, catastrophic
climate change, nuclear war, cloning, environmental disaster, and
killer robots. Now, there is something new. In Michael
Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey, the villain is mechanical,
yet too small to be seen, self-replicating, insidious and deadly.
The villain is nanotechnology.

If that’s a term you’re not familiar with, you soon will be.

Nanotechnology, the emerging science of manipulating matter on
an atomic or molecular scale, is expected to be a
multi-trillion-dollar international industry over the next decade.
Now, $11 billion is being spent on nanotechnology worldwide, half
by industry, half by government. In Australia, $160 million of
public funds is now spent on nanotechnology research.

Nanotechnology offers tremendous potential benefits in medicine,
materials and manufacturing, and Australian nanotech firms are
hoping to claim their share of the emerging market.

Hence this week’s nanotechnology forum at Melbourne’s
Crown Promenade Hotel — Healthy Opportunities from Small
Technologies — which features experts in the field from around
the world. Under discussion will also be micro, bio and info
technology, but nano is the star attraction. In the new sciences of
the 21st century, big is no longer beautiful.

It is hard to fathom just how small the nanoscale is —
one-to-100 nanometres (a nanometre is a billionth of a metre). If
the one-millimetre interval on your ruler was scaled up in size to
a kilometre, the nano range would be equal to the width of your
hand or smaller. At this scale you can, in theory, build things out
of individual atoms. It is seriously tiny.

But smaller, as scientists have discovered, also means faster,
cheaper and lighter. Nanotechnology will pave the way for a host of
products, some already with us, that will transform our world. And,
as alluded to in Crichton’s novel, there are concerns over the
safety of nanotechnology — though its advocates argue that
such dangers will never occur anywhere other than in the realm of
science fiction.

One of the conference visitors will be Craig Cuddeback,
vice-president of the US-based nanotech magazine Small
: “It’s already in the market. It’s
included in sunscreen products, it’s in encodings for lenses
and glasses, they’re using it in building materials.”

Cuddeback says glass has been coated with nano-structured wax
particles to create self-cleaning windows. Nanoglass can also be
designed to better trap heat. But his favourite existing
nanoproducts are the pants and shirts made by such firms as the
US-based Nanotex, where the fabric is coated with

Small Times editor Craig Cuddeback.

Small Times editor Craig Cuddeback.
Photo:Shannon Morris

“There’s no stain or wrinkles. I’ve had a couple
of shirts now for over a year and washed them every week and I
still haven’t put an iron to them or had a stain on them. And
they feel just like cotton . . . you can’t tell the

Sunscreen is another example. Zinc cream is a very visible white
coating, unlike a nano-zinc cream such as “Megan Gale
Invisible Zinc”, which has just hit the market. “The zinc
particles are so small you can’t see them. It’s more
effective, too.”

Mercedez-Benz, says Cuddeback, have built cars with nanotech
scratchproof finish. Japanese researchers are using nanotech
“buckytubes” that will allow high-resolution, flat-panel
television. Energy is another field ripe for nanotech takeover.

“They’re using nanotech for application to flat panel
lights, where there are walls of light to replace light

He’s also predicting a future full of nanotech. In 2020, he
says we will be drinking desalinated water purified through
nanofilters; nanowiring may be fine enough to connect severed
nerves in an injured spine, restoring partial movement for
quadraplegics and paraplegics; biosensors with nanodetectors will
protect cities from gas or viral attack. In defence, soldiers will
wear T-shirt-weight material that can stop a bullet;
nano-engineered explosives will be vastly more powerful;
lightweight tanks will have superstrong nanoarmour.

Meanwhile, by 2018, the US company Liftport, with NASA’s
backing, is aiming to build the first space elevator, in essence a
superstrong cable stretching from an orbiting satellite to the
ground. Mechanised “lifters” will hoist themselves up the
cable and carry payloads into orbit. But the only material
that’s strong enough to build such a cable — albeit
produced so far only in short lengths — is a nano-engineered
material called carbon nanotubes.

While nanorobots, or nanobots, may remain fantasy, there is no
doubt that nanotechnology will enable mechanical devices to become
far smaller than they are now. A prime example is
“lab-on-a-chip”, one of the fastest-growing fields in
nanotech, where a full-scale laboratory is shrunk to the size of
your hand. A blood test that used to take between four and 48 hours
could be done in just 30 to 40 minutes. The same lab could provide
on-the-spot testing for water contamination or bacterial infection
of meat.

“A lot of the things that you went to a pathologist for,
you’ll be able to do at home,” says Terry Turney, the
director of CSIRO’s Nanotechnology Centre.

“You’ll be able to download that information to the GP
so when you walk into the GP’s office he or she will have all
the information they need for a good diagnosis.”

Nanoengineering is also the only way computing speed will
continue to increase as current chip technology approaches its
limits. “We’re going to reach the point where we
can’t keep on miniaturising transistors,” says

“In 2020 I would hope that we’ve sorted out how to
make molecular transistor devices, which will mean that we’ll
get very much higher processing power.”

The nano future, then, looks set to deliver macro rewards. How,
then, can Crichton and critics including Sun Microsystems founder
Bill Joy predict nano doom? By 2020, we may well have transistors
built out of molecules.

Some believe we may go further and build “nanomachines”
— fully autonomous, self-replicating devices able to build
endless copies of themselves out of molecules and atoms from normal
materials. Hence the talk of “nanobots” zipping around
our bloodstream, as in the film Fantastic Voyage, curing diseases.
Or a swarm of nanobots repairing the ozone layer, or cleaning up
oil slicks, or attacking an invading army.

American scientist K. Eric Drexler invented the nanobot concept
in his landmark 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of
. Drexler remains a champion of the concept and
is the founder of the non-profit Foresight Institute, which funds
development of these “molecular self-assemblers”.

But Drexler’s book also warned that a swarm of
out-of-control nanobots replicating themselves exponentially could
swiftly turn the entire planet into a mass of “grey goo”.
This now infamous term remains the worst-case scenario for

Crichton’s book, although not about grey goo, details a
similar threat to mankind from self-replicating nanobots.

But nanobots are a long way from, say, nano-engineered DVDs that
can store 500 times the data of a current disc. And it’s one
thing to have material coated in nanoparticles or pricked with
nanoholes but it’s quite another to have working machines that
size, although Drexler remains convinced they can be built.

“Not in our lifetime will we have little motors running
around in our bodies curing cancer,” says Thomas Wyrobek,
president of US nanotech firm Hysitron. Turney agrees. “Most
scientists believe there are very sound scientific reasons why
construction of a totally inorganic nanomachine is going to be, if
not impossible, then very very difficult . . . it’s decades,
if not many decades, away before we can solve some of these

“In order to create machines of that size, you’ve got
a problem with self-repair. There’s very few atoms involved in
some of the features at that level and they tend to break up very
readily. They’re very fragile.”

While the advent of marauding swarms of nanobots are highly
unlikely, nanotechnology still has its critics. Prince Charles,
writing in the British newspaper The Independent in July,
said nanotechnology could offer “similar upsets” to
thalidomide, a reference that many British scientists felt was
inappropriate. While the prince acknowledged that nanotechnology
was a “triumph of human ingenuity” and that “some of
the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling
the construction of much cheaper fuel cells, or new ways of
combating ill-health”, he also asked “how are we going to
ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may . . .

However, he denied using the expression “grey goo”,
adding “I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller
than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our
planet. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the
realms of science fiction.”

The same month, a study commissioned by the British Government
recommended that free nanoparticles, or those that could come into
direct contact with humans through the air or the skin, be subject
to fresh regulatory controls, as their impact is uncertain.

“We are concerned with this one area,” said Ann
Dowling, chair of the working group behind the study. But the
report she oversaw generally gave nanotechnology a bill of clean

“Almost all nanotechnology poses no risk,” she

The future of Nanotechnology has vast implications
for future generations.

Nanotechnology is recognized as the “hottest” new
area in medicine and other fields. Researchers utilizing valid
Nanotechnology are aggressively working to develop Nano-products,
with a rush to file patents.

One such group is the research team at
With 90-years of combined medical and scientific expertise, these
researchers have developed NanoMolecules, and received and filed
new patents on Nanotechnology in Sickle Cell Disease, Thalassemia,
genetic polymorphisms, Dysregulated Arginine Metabolism, and Chocolate
Computer Chips ®; chocolate that does not shunt into human
adipose tissue fat cells.

Examples of Patented NanoTechnology:

• The United States Department
of Health and Human Services has filed and received a patent on
drug    delivery systems.

• Scientists at the Gene
Foundation have developed an L-arginine transport system for use
in humans based    on a NanoMolecule, Trutina Dulcem,
with registered patents and patents-pending.

• Scientists at BioExpertise
in California have received a patent on binding protein sequences
for use in    human diseases.

• As of September 2006,
193 new patent applications have been filed in the field of Nanotechnology,
and    over 1000 patents registered in Nanotechnology

Article by Stephen Cauchi

Some jackass crafts some sun glasses for a housefly. Photo: Micreon GmbH

An ant carries a one millimetre square microchip in its mandibles, illustrating the work that is being done in nanotechnology. Photo: Reuters.


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