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Nano tech: It is a small world after all

By Dr. Madhuchhanda Bagchi

Many people like to fantasize about the future and the many technological promises it holds. Some think that humankind will be developing cities in space and actually living normal lives. Some assume that computers and robots will be advanced enough to do our work, and some are certain that there will be flying cars, underwater civilizations, and intergalactic space exploration. But, what about nanotechnology? Most people have heard of it but hardly knew about it.

Bottom up or Top down?

Nanotechnology can be seen as an extension of existing sciences into the nano-scale, or as a recasting of existing sciences using a newer, more modern term. A nano-metre is by definition 10- 9 of a metre, this does not help scientists to communicate the nano-scale to non-scientists. It is in human nature to relate sizes by reference to everyday objects, and the commonest definition of nanotechnology is in relation to the width of a human hair. Two main approaches are used in fabricating nano- material.

• In the "bottom up" approach, materials and devices are built from molecular components, which assemble themselves chemically by principles of molecular recognition.
• In the "top down" approach, nano-objects are constructed from larger entities without atomic-level control.

Nanotechnology has been trying to conquer: the precision in reproducing matter of our choice at the molecular and atomic level. Combined with refined processes such as electron beam lithography and molecular beam epitaxy, atomic force microscope (AFM), and scanning tunneling microscope (STM), nanotechnology allows the deliberate manipulation of nanostructures, and leads to the observation of novel phenomena.

Nano polymers

Examples of nanotechnology in modern use are the manufacture of polymers based on molecular structure. Real commercial applications have mainly used the advantages of colloidal nanoparticles in bulk form, such as suntan lotion, protective coatings, stain resistant clothing, and cosmetics. Nanotechnology designed lipstick changes color on lip according to the time and temperature of the day. Modern synthetic chemistry has reached the point where it is possible to prepare small molecules to almost any structure.

Nano- robots

Nano robots are typically devices ranging in size from 0.1-10 micrometres and constructed of nano-scale or molecular components. Some 40 years after the release of the classic science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, researchers in the NanoRobotics Laboratory of École Polytechnique de Montréal's Department of Computer Engineering and Institute of Biomedical Engineering have achieved a major technological breakthrough in the field of medical robotics. They have succeeded for the first time in guiding, in vivo and via computer control, a micro-device inside an artery, at a speed of 10 centimeters a second.

Nano Medicine

Nano-medicine is the medical application of nanotechnology and related research. It covers areas such as nano particle drug delivery and possible future applications of nano-vaccinology, where drugs will be delivered into the targeted body cells (e.g. cancer cells) without doing any damage to the healthy cells.

Building Atom by Atom

One of the defining moments in nanotechnology came in 1989 when Don Eigler used a SPM to spell out the letters IBM in xenon atoms. For the first time we could put atoms exactly where we wanted them, even if keeping them there at much above absolute zero proved to be a problem. While useful in aiding our understanding of the nano-world, arranging atoms together one by one is unlikely to be of much use in industrial processes. Given that a Pentium 4 processor contains 42 million transistors, even simplifying the transistors to a cube of 100 atoms on each side would require 42 x 102 operations, and that is before we start to consider the other material and devices needed in a functioning processor.

Nanotechnology, like any other branch of science, is primarily concerned with understanding how nature works. We have discussed how our efforts to produce devices and manipulate matter are still at a very primitive stage compared to nature. Nature has the ability to design highly energy efficient systems that operate precisely and without waste, fix only that which needs
Fixing, do only that which needs doing, and no more. We do not, although one day our understanding of nano-scale phenomena may allow us to replicate at least part of what nature accomplishes with ease.

The author is Dean, Department of Engineering, EIILM University