by December 5, 2002 0 comments

There has always been an effort to pack more and more into less and less of space. And computing holds out some of the best examples of our successes in this. More data stored on less and less storage space, more processing power compressed into smaller and smaller processors, more and more power stored in smaller and smaller battery packs–the list is virtually endless. 

Nano medicine

More than in computing, it is perhaps in medicine that nanotechnology is set to make great leaps forward. Way back in 1966, the movie Fantastic Voyage picturized miniature equipment being injected inside the human body to treat diseases. The technique the movie showed, of miniaturizing a submarine full of people and sailing it through the veins of the body to the brain, is still fiction. But we are very close to implanting miniature machines in the body or injecting miniature probes and monitors into the blood stream.
Some of these nano machines can have a biological composition. Thus, in the case of implants, they could improve diseased organs like the heart or the ear. Thus, a bulky pacemaker could be replaced by a nano valve and motor set that would not require external power source, but would be powered off the host body itself.
Nano probes moving through the blood stream could monitor changes in the health of the body and send out alerts to medical systems, so that corrective action can be taken even before serious diseases manifest themselves.

But, in many areas, we are coming up against the physical limits of miniaturization. For example, the circuitry in modern-day processors is only a few molecules apart. It may not be possible to shrink things much beyond this stage. If you want to go beyond this point, then you have to work at an atomic scale, that is build out of atoms.

Welcome to the world of nanotechnology!

How it works
Every structure is made up of molecules arranged in a certain pattern. Molecules, in turn, are made up of aligned atoms. Nanotechnology works by getting every atom in the right place to form any structure that can be specified in molecular detail. This can be done in two ways. One, by having molecular-scale positional devices (computer-controlled nano-robots) that can assemble macroscopic elements. Two, through self-replicating manufacturing systems that will be able to make copies of themselves to manufacture useful products.

Your life on a disk

Events in your life on a hard disk. That’s what Microsoft’s MyLifeBits project is all about. Engineers at the Media Presence Lab in San Francisco are now working on software that will chronicle different events in your life, creating a huge surrogate brain that doesn’t suffer from forgetfulness. Every photo you click, mails that you write, your home movies, telephone conversations, your online shopping, in short the entire gamut of your communication will be logged into a huge searchable database. Files stored on this database will be tagged and interlinked to others. Of course, privacy can become a core issue, but for the time-being the researchers aren’t bothered.

To build these nano machines, we need equipment that can manipulate material at the atomic level. Currently nano machines are created in labs using engraving, lithographic and etching equipment capable of working in the nano meter scale. These facilities are maintained as class ten clean rooms. Meaning, they will have not more than ten particles of size 0.5 microns or higher in size per cubic foot of space, and where people work in bunny suits made popular by Intel’s ads. In India, the Semiconductor Complex in Punjab is one facility that has a class 10 clean room. Researchers envision mass manufacture to happen through computers that can treat atoms like bits of information and manipulate them to form a shape. With programmed nanoscopic robot arms, these computers will be able to build things one atom or molecule at a time.

A nano drive gear chain with a pollen grain (top right) and coagulated red blood cells (bottom-right and top-left) 

In computing, carbon nanotubes have been the big news. Discovered in 1991, by Japanese electron microscopist Sumio Lijima at NEC, they have come a long way to get incorporated into processors. IBM has been a pioneer in this area by demonstrating a new process for fabricating carbon nanotubes into processors. Carbon nanotubes are one nanometer in diameter and have tremendous thermal and chemical stability. They can also carry extremely large current densities. They can be thought of as a sheet of graphite (a hexagonal lattice of carbon) rolled into a cylinder. As they are incredibly small, they can allow billions of transistors on a single chip, which gives the benefit of faster speeds for processing. (See page 84, PCQuest, August 2001 for details.)

Super dense storage using nanotechnology was recently achieved when IBM created a storage device that can store about 25 million textbook pages of information in a chip having the size equaling a postage stamp. The chip, codenamed Millipede, has more then 1000 heated spikes, which read tiny indentations to a polymer film. The indentations that are left on the polymer film measure 10 nanometers each and carry a digitized version of the data. Millipede chips are 20 times more densely packed than current hard drives. With such a technology, cellphones will be able to carry 10 GB of data. IBM plans to come to market with this technology by late 2005.

Small beginnings

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman envisioned nanotechnology in 1959. But it was only in 1986 that it became popular when Dr Eric Drexler talked of it in his book, Engines of Creation. You can find an online copy of this book at From 86 to now, sixteen years later, we are on the brink of major developments in this area. In 1990, IBM used a scanning tunnel microscope to position 35 atoms into an IBM logo. 
Nanotechnology is expected to arrive in the mass market only when production costs using this technology are lesser than for the current methods of production. The first ‘Assembler’ having the ability to assemble single atoms into any substance is expected to arrive in 8 to 15 years, but some believe that it won’t happen before 2030. Let us wait and watch. 

Intel plans to enter the nanotechnology era with the release of 90 nanometer chips next year. In September, Intel announced that work is being done, along with Harvard University, on silicon nanowires and carbon nanotubes. These structures are made of self-assembling silicon and carbon atoms, respectively, and may replace standard transistors on chips. Intel plans to hit the market with this technology in 2010. By mid-decade, Intel plans to integrate radios into ordinary silicon chips thereby making wireless communication a free service.

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