Less than micro

Jan. 18, 2006
The world of nanotechnology is small and getting smaller by the day. Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz offers some key web resources for understanding this "shrinking" technology.

It would be dreadful if nanotech shrunk out of sight completely, because it’s truly on the cutting edge of science, pushing back the frontiers of ignorance and offering hopes of dramatically improving the lifestyle of nearly everyone on the planet. And it’s going to be doing that with ever-tinier hardware.

We already acknowledge that small is good. For example, the shrinking conductor width in a computer’s CPU has pushed computational power per unit volume to heights never imagined by the computer geeks of two or three generations ago. Don’t forget the computer’s miniscule electrical power density compared to those rooms full of vacuum tubes. Think about it. When was the last time you saw some handheld gizmo that needed a nine-volt battery?

If nanotechnology is here to stay, as appears to be the case, it would be better that we all had just enough knowledge about it to be dangerous. If nothing else, we could hold court at the next social event we attend and sound immensely erudite. So, I’d like to invite you to join me on another dive into that definitely non-nano morass we call the Web in search of some practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free Web resources that can expand your nanotechnology horizons. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

The big picture
Big dreams are the order of the day for anyone trying to promote nanotechnology. Claims coming out of laboratories around the world might merely be hype to get us commoners excited about investing our perfectly good greenbacks in another dot-com-like fiasco, or it might be truth. It’s hard to tell because of the fantastic nature of some of the claims. To get an appreciation of what’s in store for society, levitate your nanomouse in the general direction of http://science.howstuffworks.com/nanotechnology.htm/printable, where you’ll find “How nanotechnology will work,” an article by Kevin Bonsor. I hope he’s on target with his material.

As one wag put it, during the 1840s California gold rush, the only people who consistently made money were those selling shovels and pans. You might want to start diverting some of your 401(k) and IRA assets to companies that sell nanotechnology tooling.

The glossary
Like any emerging high-tech field, nanotechnology has spawned a lexicon of specialized terms and jargon designed to facilitate discussion and understanding among its practitioners. Biovorous, foglet, Lofstrom loop and sentience quotient are a few of the examples. A cursory exploration of this field of endeavor quickly reveals that nanotechnology isn’t your grandfather’s engineering discipline. To get you up to speed on the lexicon of smallness, I direct your attention to www.nanotech-now.com. This Web site established by 7th Wave in Banks, Ore., is intended to serve the nanotechnological information needs of business, government, academic and public communities. Look for the link to the glossary on the left side of the screen. I think you’ll agree that a few of the definitions seem a bit farfetched, but, hey, we’re trying to facilitate discussion here.

A gold mine of info
Ralph C. Merkle is a Principal Fellow at Zyvex, a nanotechnology company in Richardson, Texas that offers R&D tools, nanomaterials and assembled micromachines to researchers in the field. Merkle controls a section of the company Web site -- www.zyvex.com/nano -- where you’ll find so much material accessible from a single richly linked Web page that it’s difficult to give you a concise summary of everything to be found there. Many of the links lead to material that is somewhat theoretical and a bit abstract, but it can be a good point of departure for exploring those facets of nanotechnology that tickle your fancy. Before you shrink off to the next paragraph, you can examine Merkel’s own page, found at www.merkle.com.

It’s not the paint we desire to own when we buy a gallon can of that organic liquid: it’s really the protection and beautification that it provides. And every maintenance professional realizes most of that costly gallon is merely a solvent that evaporates. When you think about it, it’s probably more environmentally sound to toss money to the wind instead of releasing VOCs while waiting for the coating to cure. That’s the motivation for developing solvent-free industrial coatings that cure in only seconds. If you want to investigate how nanopaint will affect your budget, productivity and beauty of your plant, brush your mouse in the direction of http://news.zdnet.com/2100-1040_22-5660745.html to read “Nanotech company aims to put paint in the past,” an article by Michael Kanellos that appeared in ZDNet News earlier this year.

A coatings application that makes good use of nanotechnology is Deletum 3000, an anti-graffiti paint developed at Centro de Física Aplicada y Tecnología Avanzada, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The article you’ll find at www.azonano.com/details.asp?ArticleID=863 explains in lay terms how the material is able to resist repeated attacks by those mental midgets toting ubiquitous cans of spray paint.

Don’t do windows
In another perfectly practical application of nanotechnology, we now have self-cleaning windows. Think about the savings such hardware would imply in maintaining the outside of your building. These windows come clean during a rainstorm or when you hose them off during a drought. Clean glass also offers you the potential to reduce the amount of electricity used for artificial illumination in favor of greater amounts of good ol’ sunlight. Of course, this is capitalism we’re talking, so expect to pay a slight premium for the convenience it buys you. The details, courtesy of Clark Public Utilities in Vancouver, Wash., can be found at www.clarkpublicutilities.com/Residential/TheEnergyAdviser/Archives2004/04_10_17.

Cleaning up the back 40
In the unenlightened days before the advent of eco-activism, manufacturing plants could get away with dumping all manner of wet nasties on the ground out behind the rearmost building on the property. Now they can’t do that so we end up with Superfund sites all over the country, and cleaning up such mess is a costly, time-consuming business. The days of specialized contractors digging up quite a nice living for themselves using only a shovel might be coming to an end if Wei-xian Zhang at Lehigh University has anything to say about the matter. Using a decade of research and funding from the National Science Foundation, Zhang found a way to use the fourth most abundant element on earth and a bit of nanotechnology to cleave, [i]in situ[i], the molecules of wet nasties into smaller pieces, which reduces the overall toxicity level. We should give this guy a medal if his idea proves workable. Have your mouse burrow into www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/03/pr0394.htm for the details.

And you thought cavitation was bad
Yes, it’s THAT cavitation we’re talking about. Each of those tiny bubbles removes a microamount of impeller metal and, before they’ve completed the task, there’s a work order being issued. But, that’s the negative view of what can be a beneficial phenomenon. The trick is putting a leash on the metal-eating bubbles and teaching them to play nicely. Such is the general drift of a paper presented by Mark L. LeClair, Emanuel F. Barros and Mustafa G. Guvench at the Ninth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology back in 2001. Although the abstract posted at www.foresight.org/Conferences/MNT9/Abstracts/LeClair is still hopeful, after so many years, that the full paper will be available online soon, I couldn’t locate it out in our favorite morass.

Remember asbestos?
Before you go gaga and embrace nanotechnology to its fullest extent, be aware that those beloved microscopic particles still represent a degree of uncertainty, which, in the current marketplace, translates to an inherent litigious risk. If anyone has the ability to quantify risk, it’s the insurance industry. That’s why I recommend that you read an offering from that industry. “Small sizes that matter: Opportunities and risks of nanotechnologies” is a 46-page white paper prepared by the Allianz Center for Technology based in Munich and edited by Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser. This document discusses the market prospects for a variety of industries and potential applications for the technology. But, it also warns of the potential physiological dangers that such tiny particles pose, especially if airborne. Also, risk management is important because of the possible toxicity related to the particle’s enormous ratio of surface area to volume. So, remove the rose-colored glasses, hold your breath and take a peek at what you’ll find at www.allianz.com/azcom/dp/cda/0,,796454-44,00.html.

The future of industrial computing
Would you believe one terabit-worth of information stored on a flash memory device no bigger than a postage stamp? How about at a cost of only a nickel per megabyte? Those are real possibilities. It should be obvious to even the most casual observer that nanotechnology will affect some facets of our beloved asset-care world. But as the old philosopher said, if you’re going to predict what will happen, don’t say when, and if you’re going to say when, don’t say what. Nevertheless, before you start making any bets in this arena, tune in to www.forbes.com/2003/10/02/1002nanotechnologypinnacor.html, where you’ll find “Get Ready For The Age Of Nanotechnology” by John Teresko, an article that appeared in IndustryWeek Magazine.

Smaller is better, less is more

Solventless paints

Potential benefits

Overview of potential hazards

Anti-graffiti paint

Self-cleaning windows

Industrial computing

Taming cavitation

Personal page of a nanotech pioneer

Nanotech glossary

Environmental cleanup

Nanotech portal

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