A revolution in science that could surpass the impact of the transistor or the automobile has evolved at lightning speed since its inception just a little over a decade ago, with institutions around the world scrambling for position in a world where it pays to think small. Very small.
Scientists at International Business Machines set off a technological explosion in 1990 when they used an atomic force microscope to nudge individual atoms into the right position to spell out those well-known initials, IBM. It was a remarkable achievement because something had been assembled — although it was just a sign — one atom at a time.
Just a few decades ago, it took many years for that kind of achievement to have much of an impact, but we're in the age of electronics now, and advancements in nanotechnology — the field of developing very small scientific tools — are as big today as its components are small.
According to the National Science Foundation, 17 federal agencies are into nanotechnology in a big way, supporting its development to the tune of $1 billion a year. They're into it because tiny devices so small that they can only be seen with powerful microscopes could someday carry drugs through your veins to exactly the spot where you need them, or detect hazardous materials that are invisible to the unaided eye, or power a cell phone for months.
Tiny Energy for Tiny Devices
The list of applications seems to have no end, and some experts believe consumer electronic devices built with components only a billionth of a meter — that's one nanometer — in size could be in the marketplace within five years.
In a field that is so young and is moving so quickly it's hard to see the milestones, but it has advanced from the theoretical research phase to patented techniques that will form the foundation for its growth and development.
One such patent has just been issued to the University of Tulsa for batteries that are so small that 40 could be stacked across the width of a human hair. Chemistry professor Dale Teeters and two of his former chemical engineering students, Nina Korzhova and Lane Fisher, have constructed thousands of tiny batteries, each of which can deliver up to 3.5 volts.
"These batteries aren't going to drive a flashlight," says Teeters, because they are so small their energy supply would be quickly exhausted. "There's an incredibly tiny amount of energy involved, but if you have an incredibly tiny device then the device will function for the period of time that it needs to."
Such a tiny battery could be used to drive a microbe-sized submarine through a patient's blood vessels like the one featured in the 1966 science fiction movie, Fantastic Voyage. Teeters says he used to dismiss that movie as pure fantasy, but not anymore. A company in Germany has already developed just such a "submarine," he says.
Robot-Built Mini Worlds
Other inventions are being revealed on almost a daily basis. Just last week, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, announced that they are developing something they call "smart dust." These are tiny robots, smaller than a grain of sand, that could move through an artery, or through the air, or through contaminated water, to carry medication or sniff out hazardous materials.
Others are working on tiny self-replicating and self-assembling robots that could create their own world, either on this planet or another, one cell at a time.
Teeters thinks he and his students may have an ace in their new patent, because "a battery, or at least some sort of power supply, is crucial to all of these," he says.
That's why officials with two major players in electronics, Sanyo and Panasonic, talked with him at an international conference in Paris last May. So far, no contracts, but Teeters knows he's a bit premature. At the moment, there isn't much of a market for tiny batteries, because there aren't a lot of tiny devices out there yet.
But there will be. No doubt about that.
Battle of the Robots?
And there's also no doubt but that those tiny devices will change all of our lives. And that, naturally, has a lot of people worried.
Activists around the world, from Prince Charles down (or up, depending on your point of view) are demanding that government agencies take a closer look at the impact on society from nanotechnology. What's going to happen if we unleash zillions of microscopic robots to flood across our landscape, searching for God only knows what? Will we lose control?
That may sound a bit far-fetched, but the concerns are real, and facts and myths from both sides are bound to crowd into the philosophical arena in the years ahead. The National Science Foundation has already sunk $2 million into research on the societal impact of nanotechnogy and other agencies both in this country and abroad are doing the same.
The hope is that by attacking the subject early, perhaps it might be possible to assess the potential for good as well as evil in a rational, systematic way.
Wouldn't that be great, for a change?
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.