Major changes do not always occur on a big scale. Sometimes the things that revolutionize our industry and our lives are tiny inventions, tiny products that do their job exceptionally outside the spotlight.
The last 70 years have seen the rise of two major – yet tiny – inventions in nanotechnology: the electronic transistor and the microchip, which make all modern electronics possible, and since their development in the 1940s they’ve been getting smaller.
The real challenge is the manufacture of working nanoscale devices. The physical properties of matter, such as its melting point, electrical conductivity and chemical reactivity, are radically different at the nanoscale, so shrinking a device can affect its performance. If we can master this technology, then we have the opportunity to improve not just electronics but all sorts of areas of modern life.
An article on The Conversation addresses the ways in which nanotech is securing our future. So here are five examples:
- Sensors – They rely on newly-invented nanomaterials and manufacturing techniques to make them smaller, more complex and more energy efficient. Their evolution opens up the possibility of placing them at lots of points over critical infrastructure – such as bridges, aircraft and even nuclear power plants to constantly check that everything is running as it should.
- Doctors inside our bodies – By scaling down the technology that nowadays is used to monitor our vital sings, we could go further by implanting or injecting tiny sensors inside our bodies. This would allow for a more detailed and less intrusive diagnosing process of the patient and a more personalized course of treatment. In the future, electronic devices could actually interfere with our body’s signals for controlling organ functions. Although such technologies may sound like sci-fi, multi-billion healthcare firms such as GlaxoSmithKline are already working on ways to develop so-called “electroceuticals”.
- Self-healing structures – In the future, not only will nanotechnology be able to monitor the state of different structures in real time but also, if cracks do appear, then nanotech could play a further role. Changing the structure of materials at the nanoscale can give them some mindblowing new properties – giving them a texture that repels water, for example. Nanotechnology coatings or additives will even have the potential to allow materials to “heal” when damaged or worn.
- Making big data storage possible – Nanotechnology is helping to create ultra-dense memory that allows us to store a wealth of data. Our own bodies offer several examples of big-data processes efficiently being performed in real-time by tiny structures, such as the parts of the eye and ear that turn external signals into information for the brain. Such examples inspire computer architecture that could also use energy more efficiently and so would struggle less with excess heat.
- Tackling climate change – Nanotech has already helped create batteries that can store more energy for electric cars and has enabled solar panels to convert more sunlight into electricity. In the future, it could enable more objects to harvest energy from their environment. New nano-materials and concepts are currently being developed that show potential for producing energy from movement, light, variations in temperature, glucose and other sources with high conversion efficiency.