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Nanotechnology: How the “Science of Small Things” Is Solving Big Problems

Richard Feynman invented nanotechnology during a 1959 lecture. In 1984, he asked, “How small can you make machinery?” Scientists inspired by his vision are working to answer that question.

Let’s start by trying to picture “one billionth part of something” – the simple definition of “nano,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Here’s some help contextualizing this prefix for units of length and time.

Pick a finger; any will do. The nail on it will grow about a nanometer in one second.

Consider the hair that just fell out of your head. It’s about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide.

The sheet of paper on which you write your grocery list is about 100,000 nanometers “thick.”

Those gold bars or coins you hold in your safe at home, in a safety-deposit box at your bank, or with a third-party storage firm? Three gold atoms are about a nanometer long.

And it takes about a nanosecond for light to travel 30 centimeters through the air or 20 centimeters through an optical fiber.

That something so small could carry us into the future is the realization of a far-out concept first articulated by famed physicist Richard Feynman almost 60 years ago.

In his December 29, 1959, talk at a meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology, Feynman “described a process in which scientists would be able to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules.”

Feynman invented nanotechnology, which is “science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.”

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, “Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.”

That something so small could carry us into the future is the realization of a far-out concept first articulated by famed physicist Richard Feynman almost 60 years ago.

And how: Evidence of a nano revolution abounds.

Just this week, the Royal Academy of Sciences awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jean-Pierre Sauvage of the University of Strasbourg, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart of Northwestern University, and Bernard L. Feringa of the University of Groningen “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”

These guys “developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.”

Among the nanoscale machines they designed and/or built: a molecular elevator, a molecular muscle, a molecule-based computer chip, a molecular motor, and a nanocar.

Their breakthrough was taking “molecular systems out of equilibrium’s stalemate and into energy-filled states in which their movements can be controlled.”

Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa have brought us nanometers away from creating stronger materials, better sensors, and more efficient energy-storage systems.

In the mid-19th century, scientists used electric motors to spin cranks and wheels. Now we use them to power cars, blenders, and washing machines.

Feringa’s frame of reference is the Wright brothers and their flying machine. At the time, laymen had no idea of its practical applications. “And today,” the new Noble Laureate tells Scientific American,” we have Boeing 747s.”

Feringa sees a future that includes nanobots injected into the body to find and fight cancer.

Indeed, we’re already talking about nanotechnology, nanorobotics, and nanobots with medical applications.

Nanoelectronics researchers at the University of Southampton have made huge strides toward the development of “neural implants that communicate with prosthetic limbs when neurons fire.”

As IEEE Spectrum reports, Themis Prodromakis is exploring the use of memristors – which are, like resistors, capacitors, and inductors, electronic devices – in systems with integrated circuits in a way that would enable monitoring of “potentially millions of neurons.”

Memristors are unique among electronic devices because they have memory.

In a paper published September 26, 2016, by the journal Nature Communications, Prodromakis and his team described a way to solve “the bottleneck” limiting “an efficient bio-electronic link,” which is “the real-time processing of neuronal signals.”

The key is the introduction of a memristor as part of “a unique concept where the intrinsic properties of memristive devices are exploited to compress information on neural spikes in real-time.”

Prodomakis’ goal is to use low-power memristors as part of an implanted system including other devices to control prosthetic limbs.

The theory is awesome. But we’re a long way from a clinical application.

As I noted in the July 29, 2016, Wall Street Daily, “We’re already making tiny biological machines – ‘designer microbes’ or ‘genetically modified bacteria’ – that are helping to make pharmaceuticals and ‘sweat’ biofuels.”

The biological approach is also exciting. Together with advances in the synthetic approach to nanomachines, the flood of nano-based applications predicted by futurist Ray Kurzweil may be soon unleashed.

Feynman, at the outset of a 1984 lecture, asked, “How small can you make machinery?”

Getting into the substance of his presentation, Feynman said, “Now let us talk about the possibility of making machines with movable parts, which are very tiny.”

That possibility is now reality.

Old Things New

I have a list of 78 songs that comprise the “My Morning Run” playlist on my mobile phone. One that popped up Thursday morning was “Steps” by the great jazz clarinetist, alto saxophonist, singer, and bandleader Woody Herman.

It’s slower than most of the other 77, but “Steps” is bouncy and buoyant, yet still languid, which, paradoxically, establishes a terrific and appropriate rhythm while pacing down the path along the Potomac River at 6:15 a.m.

I’m sure, too, that Herman, a longtime aficionado of a certain substance that’s only now – slowly but surely and with great promise to help ease many types of suffering – making its way to legality, would appreciate helping fuel this particular runner’s high.

Woodrow Charles Herman was a cutting-edge musician who helped bring the blues out of the shadows, led the way as bebop replaced swing, and defined “cool jazz” from the mid-1930s all the way to the late 1980s.

His longevity was much a function of getting screwed by an accountant in the 1960s and having to play in order to pay millions in back taxes to the IRS. But even under such stress, he mentored and jump-started the careers of younger musicians.

His extensive catalogue is available for download via most of the major digital music sites, including Amazon, Apple Music, and Spotify.

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

David Dittman

, Contributing Writer

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