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Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the art and science of manipulating matter at the near-atomic scale. It is already a $9bn+ industry, and has the potential to completely transform manufacturing and medicine. Indeed, nanotechnology pioneer Ralph Merkle has compared today's manufacturing methods to makings things with lego bricks whilst wearing boxing gloves. In contrast nanotechnology involves ungloved hands individually and precisely assembling each brick (or atom).

Nanotechnology may involve processes that are either "bottom-up" or "top-down". "Bottom-up" nanotechnology refers to construction at the atomic level practically one atom at a time. It may therefore involve future "nanobots" or "nanites" assembling new products at the atomic scale, and potentially turning one material into another, self-replicating, or being injected into the human body to repair damage and target disease at the cellular level. Whilst these concepts may sound far-fetched and in the realms of science fiction, it is worth remembering that rearranging matter, self-replicating and healing are something that biological matter has been doing for millions of years via a process we call "life". It is therefore hardly surprising that "bottom-up" nanotechnology is closely associated with developments in genetic engineering and the creation of biocomputers. Medical research in nanotechnology is already also fairly advanced.

Top-down nanotechnology less spectacularly but currently far more importantly involves atomic-precision manufacturing using more conventional "large scale" production processes such as those used in making microprocessors. As reported by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, there are already over 1,000 "manufacturer-identified nanotechnology-based consumer products currently on the market". These include plasma screens with their glass strengthened with carbon nanotubes, tougher car paints, improved golf clubs, more effective sun creams, and OLED displays and longer-lasting batteries for mobile phones.

More information on nanotechnology can be found from the Foresight Nanotech Institute and from the Zyvex Nanotechnology pages by Dr Ralph Merkle. You may also want to watch the fantastic Twinkie Guide to Nanotechnology by Andrew Maynard. It's just fab! Nanotechnology also features heavily in my book 25 Things You Need to Know About the Future. A list of nanotech web references from the book can be found here.

You may also like to visit my Future Visions: Nanobots page.

Carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are 117 times stronger than steel and are already widely used in nanocomposites.
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