Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I Have Seen Heard About the Future and It Is Impossibly Small.

Let’s get this straight right off; nanotechnology is not about tiny robots. Currently it’s not about small machines at all. Even if, some decades hence, nano-machines come online, they will not be the tiny, vicious superintelligent nanobots of sci-fi/horror yarns.

I did indeed get press credentials to the Third Annual Nanotechnology Summit in town today and tomorrow. Fascinating. A conference like this is all rah-rah, of course. Tonight is the keynote speech which promises more rah-rah. Happily, the conference also offers answers to most of the questions I had about the field. As usual, I’ll try to get into more detail later on, but here are a few basics.

The morning featured a Nano 101 lecture by Dr. Alexis Abramson, a young professor at Case who is on a leave of absence to work as a Fellow in nanotechnology at NorTech. Giving the 101 lecture is a big part of her job and, as a borderline science illiterate, I can confidently say she does a good job.

Nanotechnology goes beyond simply making things smaller. The key principle in nanotech is that when materials are smaller in at least one dimension, they act differently. They may be more or less chemically reactive, they may react to light or electricity differently, or they may have different strength properties, to give a few examples.

Nanotechnology is about exploiting those differences. According to Dr. Abramson, practitioners bicker over the precise definition of nanotech, but essentially it involves the manipulation of materials that, in some dimension, are in a scale of 1-599 nanometers. Nanomaterials may include nanofilms (with a nano-dimension thickness), nanofilaments (nano-dimension diameter) and nanoparticles (just plain tiny all around.)

Nanotechnologies exist now, and commercial applications exist now. To take one mundane example, some of the super-stain resistant clothing on the market today is cloth treated with a nano-application. Indeed, much of the current focus is finding commercial application for the nanotechnologies that exist.

Much of the conference will be posted on the website. It’s all worth a look and worth keeping an eye on. There’s lots more information besides. This is just a small taste.


Luke Armour said...

Glad you could make it. Would like to have spoken with you after lunch, but got tied up with speakers. I'm interested in seeing what you thought of the lunch keynote as well.
I agree with the Nano 101, it's helpful to break the technology down into terms we can all understand. Because once you do, you realize how important this is going to be to every single person. Whether you're a dry cleaner, consumer, or manufacturer, it will affect you.
Talk to you soon.
Disclaimer: my agency provided the marketing and press materials for the summit.