Turning the corner in nanotechnology

One of the things I like to write about is nanotechnology because — to put it directly — I think it’s going to be the technology that revolutionizes the 21st Century. To suggest it will be the next “industrial revolution” hardly covers it.

Back in 2000 when everybody was prognosticating about the next century I attended a conference put on by The Foresight Institute, an organization that has been pushing nanotechnology since the ’80s. They had a group of venture capitalists who were perhaps the first to invest anything in nanotech talking with an audience of geek enthusiasts and engineers from the Silicon Valley. The VCs were actually very reserved in their forecasts. Perhaps they were just trying to keep the audience from deluging them with proposals for the first billion-dollar nanotech start-up. They cautioned that VCs wanted things that were likely to start returning their investment in five or, at most, ten years. Investment capital is seldom very patient.

One of the really enormous ideas in the field is that nanotechnology will be able to make never-before-seen structures built with atoms placed precisely where they’re wanted. In other words, nano-manufacturing needs some sort of assembler that works in a robotical fashion diligently turning out one nano-widget after another. Imagine something like an auto assembly line where arms reach out to place parts and welds through the endless repetition of robot programs — except on a scale of billions of a meter. To make things that have significance in our macro-world billions and trillions of nano-devices will be needed.

In a recent post to h+— an e-zine that loves far-out, futuristic stuff — there’s a post about recent developments for assemblers.

In a 2009 article in Nature Nanotechnology, Dr. [Nadrian] Seeman shared the results of experiments performed by his lab, along with collaborators at Nanjing University in China, in which scientists built a two-armed nanorobotic device with the ability to place specific atoms and molecules where scientists want them. The device was approximately 150 x 50 x 8 nanometers in size — over a million could fit in a single red blood cell. Using robust error-correction mechanisms, the device can place DNA molecules with 100% accuracy. Earlier trials had yielded only 60-80% accuracy.

What Dr. Seeman is using is DNA origami and structural features of DNA that are used in genetic recombination. Once again — as I described in an earlier post about nano-manufacturing — we are taking lessons from nature’s own original nano-assembler: DNA.

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