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Nanotechnology... the technology of the nano

In engineering terms, nano means 10 to the power -9 (10 raised to -9). So, 10 to the power -9 metres will be called a nanometre, 10 to the power -9 second will be called a nanosecond... and so on.

In today's world we are in the microtechnology age. As it is, micro in engineering terms means 10 to the power -6. All our computers have microprocessors, which means that the unit of dimensions used in processors are fabricated and built is micrometres or microns.

We are already aware of the power of the micropocessor... and according to Moore's Law, the processing power has been increasing at a stupendous rate... it doubles every 18 months! So far, we have been exploiting this technology more and more. But, the physical fundamental limits have begun to show now. within a few years, we will be reaching the physical limit of how much we can shrink the processor to fit more and more semiconductor devices over a small chip. The first chips contained a few thousand transistors, now we have a few millions of transistors on every single microprocessor. But, time is running out. Welcome to the exciting world of nanotech.

Nanotechnology is not only builiding ever more tinier devices, it actually focusses on a paradigm shift in the way we build anything. Today, building *anything*, means a mass manipulation of varoius molecules. You don't build a car molecule by molecule... rather, you would assemble an engine from spare parts, use metal sheets for the body and so on to build the car...typical of an assembly line, isn't it? Well, from the nanotech point ofview, this is a rather crude method of building things. No matter how much good quality material you use, there are bound to be impurities... which will lead to less-than-optimal life of the car. Also, there is bound be a small error, or variation, we can say, in two exactly same models of the car.

Now consider this... you put together a few kilos of iron, some aluminium, some carbon, etc. and 'grow' a car in your backyard! Although by now you must have declared me as crazy, just think over it. Its not at all a new concept! How else do you think that sugracane 'grows' from soil and mud cowdung and tastes really sweet? Moreover, how much do we have to pay for the production of sugarcane?

Take the example of the human body... how does the exquisite mechanism of all the extremely complex human organs like the brain, etc. are formed in the mother's womb, when all she does is eat food and drink milk and water and fruit jiuces? Molecular assembling, it might be noted, is very well used by mother nature itself! Now the question is... well, how do *we* achieve that?

Nanotechnology means manipulation of atoms and molecules. The technology goes something like this... we build molecular 'assemblers'... tiny robots whose job is to 'assemble' more complex parts of an even larger system. These assemblers should build any product by building it molecule by molecule. Now you might ask... what do we achieve by that? We achieve and extremely precise control over anything we build, right down to the last molecule! If we want a sheet of aluminium, we can make sure that we get only aluminium and no impurities whatsoever. This is just not possible with today's manufacturing technologies. One more striking feature is that the assemblers, being made up of biological materials like proteins, will be capable of self-diagnosis and also, self-reproduction! Coupled with AI (Artificial Intelligence), we have a full-fledged self-aware and self-reproducing 'factory' at our doorstep.

What are the possible uses of nanotech?

Well, there are extremely diverse fields where nanotech can be put to use.

Medical Technology:- Say your heart has a hole in it. With the current technology, this translates to a very high risk open heart surgery and lots of money. With nanotech, all you do is go to your doctor who diagnoses your problem and gives you a pill to take with your lunch. In the pill is a nanorobot. Once absorbed in your blood stream, it will find its way to your heart, use some elements from your blood itself to mend your heart. Job being done, it will exit your body through your motion.

Space Science:- Anyone who knows a little bit of relativity theory will tell you that the more your mass, the more difficult it is to accelerate you near the speed of light. Today's rockets weigh in tons and achieve speeds much below the speed of light. Space travel is a pain... a costly one. With nanotech, we have molecular 'rocket launchers' launching thousands of molecular sized 'space shuttles' at a single shot in different directions. These space shuttles consists of few cells which streamline themselves to form a radio antenna. If some cells become useless, they are ejected out, resulting in a further thrust to the shuttle. Once a shuttle reaches some planet, it 'builds' assemblers and rocket launchers from readily available material and bingo! You colonize the entire galaxy this way!

Computing:- Well, the effect of nanotech on computing is obvious. Since nano means one thousand times less than micro, it implies directly a performance boost of at least one thousand times over traditional computers. We can fit in even more transistors on a single chip. The super-tiny transistors are very close to each other which reduces latency, and also reduces heat - the worst enemy of a computer - to a very large extent. So, the slowest nanocomputer would be at least one thousand times faster than today's most powerfull computer. Add to this the self-diagnostics and reproducing capabilities and you have a heaven of dirt cheap, home grown supercomputers!

There are many more uses of nanotech. As of now, its in a very nascent stage and the researchers have been successful in making nanopulleys, nanomotors and such elementary mechanical devices, along with a few mechanical logic gates and memory.

The future belongs to the Nano!

References:-

Websites.
http://www.foresight.org/ - All about nanotech.

Books.
Engines of Creation - Dr. K. Eric Drexler (He is considered the father of nanotech).
Nano! - Ed Regis

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$Date: 2001 Oct 24 $
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