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What Is Nanotechnology or "Nanotech"?

Updated on January 02, 2017
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Andrew enjoys taking a look at where the future is leading us by zooming out and taking a look at the big picture.

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There are a lot of buzzwords flying around nowadays related to the technological singularity, or what Ray Kurzweil refers to as his "GNR revolution" (Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics). What is nanotech, and what's it all about, in layman's terms? It turns out it's not all that complicated nor all that difficult to understand, at least on a conceptual level.

Classic Video to Envision Very Small Scales

The "Nanoscale"

When considering the opportunities for the miniaturization of manufacturing processes, it's first important to understand exactly what the scale is here that we're talking about. What is the "nanoscale" anyway, and why does everyone want to use all these fancy, complicated buzzwords?

It pays to start with the root words themselves.

First off, "nano" means, simply, one billionth. One billionth is one thousandth of one millionth, but that's not really all that helpful in terms of visualizing what it really means. The root "nano" is used to describe a "nanometer", which is (as the name implies) one billionth of a meter in size. Sizes on this scale are really tough for regular folks like us to imagine, though, seeing as how our brains are wired to operate on the scale of a meter (imagine stalking prey, or running away from a predator, roughly a meter in size). We can perhaps contemplate as small as a thousandth of a meter (a millimeter), and a centimeter (a hundredth of a meter) is certainly no problem. Going any further, though: is that possible?

It is. A typical human hair (although this varies widely) is around a tenth of a millimeter. Okay, that's tangible. I can grasp that (literally, pun intended), because I can pluck a hair out of my head. Ouch! Tenth of a millimeter, meet my brain. Brain, meet a tenth of a millimeter, or 1/10,000th of a meter.

How about a tenth of that width, or 1/100,000th of a meter? Now that you mention it, extremely fine human hairs can actually be that thin. Think about a very blond hair that you almost can't see at all. Beyond that, though, we enter what is called the "microscale", and the "micrometer." Don't be frightened away by terminology, though- micro just means "millionth." Just to make things confusing and irritating (and possibly because they're extremely lazy, like me), physicists often prefer to call a micrometer a "micron."

Rod Bacteria


From "Micro" Down to "Nano"

That's around the diameter of a bacterium, or one individual bacteria cell. We have now exited the arena of what the naked eye can see, and we're well into microscopic territory.

Of course, you know by now that we're not stopping here. A millionth of a meter (again, a micron) is , pretty small (I'm certain that we all learned in school that bacteria are small). But we still have a ways to go before we reach the nanometer scale, or a billionth of a meter. A billionth of a meter is still a thousand times smaller than a micron, and it's 1/100,000,000,000th of a meter. My fingers are tired from typing all those zeros! Okay, they're not tired, but that's still considerably smaller.

Can you envision that rod-shaped bacterium that's a micron long? Now imagine that you have a really, really, really tiny meter stick that has been scaled down to the length of that bacterium. Each millimeter on that meterstick would be one nanometer across!

That is almost unimaginably tiny! We can't really even begin to imagine it without taking the necessary steps of going down in scale and comparing it to something that compares to something that compares to something we're familiar with, but with the leaps we've taken here, you may well be able to envision the nanoscale.

And that, friends and neighbors, is the nanoscale, the scale at which machines capable of propelling themselves are currently being built, and the scale at which transistors powering "thoughts" for computers are made today (the current record for smallest transistor is 3 nanometers, which is certain to be broken very soon). We'll take a look at some specifics next.

As the great Richard Feynman wrote in his famous essay of the same title, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom!" Not only that, but most of it is empty space, but that's another story.

A Factory in a Box

One of the main visions within the "singularitarian" or "transhumanist" community is summed up superbly by author Eric Drexler's phrase, the "factory in a box." Drexler coined the term "nanotechnology" all the way back in the 1980s in his seminal tome, "Engines of Creation." Neal Stephenson, among other incredibly influential science fiction authors, took Drexler's ideas and ran with them, particularly in The Diamond Age, one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time.

In 2013, Drexler wrote a followup book called "Radical Abundance", and in this book he describes in great detail this "factory in a box" concept. In a nutshell, the idea is that all simple machines, from gears to simple levers, work extremely well on the small scale, up to and including the aforementioned "nanoscale."

It gets better, though. As items get progressively smaller and smaller, they they require proportionally less energy and time to accomplish the exact same tasks. One example of this is a wheel spinning around on the nanoscale doing so in a thousandth of the time as a wheel on a scale a thousand times larger (the microscale). Ultimately, this means that components to very complicated machines can be put together incredibly rapidly. The smaller the parts, the more efficient (and fast!) the machine can be made, and the more efficient (and fast) it will perform.

In a concept that echoes Kurzweil's self-propagating "strong AI", Drexler envisions a scenario in which the factories inside the boxes generate other smaller factories inside their own respective boxes, and so on. This has obvious, far-reaching ramifications for manufacturing, not to mention jobs in manufacturing, but promises to be an incredible "abundant" period for all of mankind, given time for the results to be felt worldwide (hence the "radical abundance" term).

Hollywood's Interpretation

I very clearly remember sitting bolt upright and shouting out, "Nanobot swarm!!!" I wasn't really paying any attention to who was around, and it's a really good thing I was in my bedroom watching on our TV at the time, not that it would have happened. This was my reaction to the first time I saw a Hollywood representation of "grey goo", a nanotechnology "swarm" of tiny robots working together to create a giant autonomous cloud.

Although Hollywood tends to only focus on the absurd, with very little glimpses at the current state of things or the way the future is likely to go, it's still so much fun to see the self propagating "nanobots" in action.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" has a very cool scene near the end of the movie, and I don't want to spoil it for you beyond the brief video I've included above, but suffice it to say that there are nanobots, and they almost destroy the planet. Transcendence, in spite of some of the plot flaws, has the best nanotech in Hollywood to date, with a really high budget put to full use to create a beautiful nanobot swarm!

Hollywood will continue to produce completely inaccurate, but super-entertaining, notions of what nanotech is and can be.


Nanotech Dreams

This is a documentary you can watch on Youtube that gives a pretty good layout of what the concepts are like. It's now considered a classic (at least by geeks like me!), and it's great to hear what "nanotechnology" means, according to the guy who coined the word, Eric Drexler, and what, exactly, the nanoscale is, per his words at the time of his earliest publication.

Nanotech looks to figure prominently in radical life extension long after genetics has played its role. This is obviously something for everyone to look forward to, so let's start having the conversation about some of the possibilities (and limitations) sooner rather than later!

Metal foam as seen through an electron microscope



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    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 2 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      This was quite an interesting read and I enjoyed your sense of humour injected into it too! I'm sorta looking forward to the day that little factory box becomes available and renders our jobs obsolete. It might make humanity strive for a more utopian society. Then again, we were promised more leisure time with the invention of computers and paperless offices and email and look what happened ;( The mind boggles that anyone could invent such small machines in nanotechnology. Voted awesome!

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Suzanne, thanks for stopping by! No matter how it turns out, I want to be in on the conversation, and I want everyone else thinking about this as well.

      I'm glad I was able to make it understandable. It sounds so complex at first, but it's really not!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I like the way you described things in relationship to one another to help one conceive of smaller and smaller objects, down to the nano level.

      Just as you described this in relation to physical objects, I have long been aware of "time" as small as nanoseconds. This knowledge was necessary since I designed computer circuits years ago and needed to be sure that the memory could keep up with the CPU speed.

      It's interesting to note that the speed of electricity through the circuits is about one foot per nanosecond. This time delay had to be taken into account for various parts of a computer to properly communicate with one another, especially when computers were bigger.

      Imagine being concerned about the delay of one nanosecond. Have any friends who are always late?

      As you mentioned in your article, as the circuits get smaller, the time delay between components is reduced as well. You used the example of a spinning wheel, but this can be applied to electronic circuits as well. This is one reason why the smaller sized modern computers can function at a faster speed than prior-generation computers.

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Glenn! It means a lot to hear that from someone who has experience in the field. I really strive to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler (as Einstein may have said).

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but light in general travels at a foot a nanosecond, right? I learned this by watching Professor Muller's lectures on Youtube. Isn't that an amazing thing to be able to do?

      I can't wait to see how far we can bring this technology forward, and I'm lucky to be alive right now.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 2 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Yes Andrew, both light and electricity travel at the same speed. I was going to mention "light" in my comment above, but I was referring to computer circuits so I left that out. But now that you mention it, fiber optics uses light and the same applies… one foot per nanosecond. Amazing to think of it at that level, isn't it?

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      It absolutely is. I am currently listening to Michio Kaku's "Visions" written in 1997. It's funny to hear all his predictions for 2020. Many of them have vastly exceeded his predictions, and some are still far off. He talks about light replacing electricity in computers as one of the new possible paradigms.

      Do you follow progress on Moore's Law? I've been debating a guy about whether it's slowing down or not. There's not great data since 2011 or so on Wikipedia, for instance. Any insight?

    • TimArends profile image

      Timothy Arends 18 months ago from Chicago Region

      I didn't know there were movies with a nano technology theme out there. It's a hard thing to visualize or show in the movie, since it is, after all, dealing with the super small. I will have to check those out!

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