Nanotechnology: Tiny Things with a Big Impact

By: John J. Sierotnik

Nanotechnology is a term used to describe technologies that manipulate matter at an incredibly small scale, even down to the level of individual molecules or atoms in some instances.  Among other things, it has applications in medicine, engineering, and technology.

Use in Technology

For the past fifty years, Moore’s Law has accurately described the progress of the technology.  This “law” named after the co-founder of Intel, one of the largest manufacturers of computer processors, states that the number of transistors in a computer chip will double approximately every two years.  The processor of the first IBM PC in 1981 contained over 29,000 transistors.  A current generation smartphone can have as many as 2 billion transistors.  What has allowed this law to be true is the fact that with each generation of processors, the individual transistors get smaller.  Today, our chips are manufactured with their transistors at a nanoscale size, 14 nanometers.  To put this into perspective, an individual hydrogen atom is about 0.1 nanometers.

Use in Medicine 

Because the core building blocks of life, DNA and RNA are incredibly tiny, nanotechnology promises to bring about a revolution in medicine.  Researchers have been developing a technology allowing doctors to insert drugs and even genes into individual cells using nanoparticles.  This has the potential to bring about a revolution in cancer treatments by better being able to target cancerous cells and, unlike chemotherapy, leave healthy cells untouched.  Some even speculate that we can use nanotechnology to combat mental illness by stimulating particular neurons in the brain.

Use in Engineering

Although our engineers are able to work wonders, at the end of the day the laws of physics and the materials they work with limit what they can do.  The use of carbon nanotubes, which are up to 200 times stronger than steel, has the potential to expand what our engineers are capable of doing greatly.  Concrete, one of the most common building materials, can become significantly stronger by using carbon nanotubes as reinforcement.  This means that buildings can use thinner and lighter slabs of concrete while ultimately being stronger than a building using conventional concrete.  It also means that architects and engineers will be able to design structures that were unthinkable a decade ago.

This is an exciting time.  As nanotechnology overcomes many of the physical limits of our present technology, problems that once appeared impossible now have solutions in sight.  No one knows for certain what the future will bring, but nanotechnology is helping to ensure that our future will be bright.