One Million Times Smaller Than A Grain Of Sand

Get a picture in your mind of how big a grain of sand is.  Okay…got it?  Now…think of a really small object one million times smaller than that.  Okay…got that?  Now think of the significance of taking a picture of that small object.

Last week, IBM scientists announced they have successfully used an atomic force microscope (AFM) to reveal the chemical bonds within a molecule.  This is a significant announcement as this is the first time that all the atoms in a imagemolecule have been imaged. 

The image that was taken was of a rectangular-shaped organic molecule is made up of 22 carbon atoms and 14 hydrogen atoms.  The image looks similar to the shape of molecules we all learned in chemistry classes in high school and college.  The image (a bit blurry) shows hexagonal shapes of the five carbon rings are clear and even the positions of the hydrogen atoms around the carbon rings can be seen.

To understand the significance of the first ever image, you have to understand how small the molecule was that was imaged.  The space between the carbon rings is only 0.14 nanometers across, which is roughly one million times smaller than the diameter of a grain of sand.  Now that is small!

So what does this announcement have to do with you?  Perhaps not much, but it means a big deal to future generations that will be in a world made up of very small (nano) things.  The IBM scientists say that this research could have a huge impact of the field of nanotechnology, which seeks to understand and control some of the smallest objects known to mankind.  

"Scanning probe techniques offer amazing potential for prototyping complex functional structures and for tailoring and studying their electronic and chemical properties on the atomic scale.”  – IBM Researcher Gerhard Meyer

More pictures are here on Flickr.  A video is on YouTube here.  And check out IBM’s announcement “IBM Scientists First to Image the Anatomy of a Molecule”

A Primer on Nanotechnology

This post will provide a quick & very high-level overview of the Nanotechnology topic, discuss some future application areas for Nanotechnology, and then provide you with some additional reading material.

Today when we think of manufacturing, we generally think of large plants churning out large products (like trucks, cars, and household appliances) or the parts and assemblies that go into these items.  Tomorrow’s generations will know of “manufacturing plants” that churn out very small things. 

Nanotechnology is the field of building microscopic mechanical and electronic devices for a wide range of applications and manipulating material on the atomic or molecular level.   A nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is about 10 thousand times narrower than a human hair and is so small it contains just 3-4 atoms.  If a baseball was blown to the size of the earth, the atoms would be about the size of grapes. 

The control over molecular level structure in material synthesis enables  to gain unprecedented control over the basic properties of materials such as conductivity, strength, opacity, ductility, reactivity.   Manipulation at the atomic scale enables scientists to create new materials that allow them, and inventors, to build new devices  that are smaller, weigh less, and have new and exciting properties.  Industry and entrepreneurs are looking to commercialize some emerging fields of nanotechnology fairly quickly and there are a number of companies surfacing that support the transfer of nanotechnology from universities and federal laboratories into the marketplace.

Nanotechnology is impacted by (and in turn, impacts) many different fields. including chemistry, physics, materials science, and biotechnology.  Scientists are excited because they are able to create innovative materials that have unique properties because their structures are determined on the nanometer scale.  Some of these materials have already found their ways into consumer products, such as sun screens and stain-resistant pants.  Others are being intensively researched for solutions to humanity's greatest problems — diseases, clean energy, clean water, etc. 

So just what types of applications will Nanotechnology be used for in future?  I did some searching and found that the Foresight Institute has identified six areas where current and near-term nanotechnology will provide innovative solutions to some of the most critical challenges facing the human race.  Here is a summary of those six areas:

1. Providing Renewable Clean Energy:  Nanotechnology will help to solve the dilemma of energy needs and limited planetary resources through more efficient generation, storage and distribution.  Read more from Foresight at Providing Renewable Clean Energy.

2. Supplying Clean Water Globally:   Nanotechnology can help solve this problem through improved water purification and filtration.  Read more from Foresight at Supplying Clean Water Globally.

3. Improving Health and Longevity:  Nanotechnology will enhance the quality of life for human beings through medical diagnostics, drug delivery and customized therapy.  Read more from Foresight at Improving Health and Longevity.

4. Healing and Preserving the Environment:  As a set of fundamental technologies that cuts across all industries, nanotech can benefit the environment in a wide variety of ways.  Stronger, lighter-weight materials in transportation can reduce fuel use, nano-structured fibers reduce staining and therefore laundering, and low-cost nanosensors will make pollution monitoring affordable. In the longer term, manufacturing processes using productive nanosystems should be able to build our products with little if any waste.  Read more from Foresight at Healing and Preserving the Environment.

5. Making Information Technology Available To All:  Nanotechnology applications in electronics will increase access through reduced cost and higher performance of memory, networks, processors and components.   Read more from Foresight at Making Information Technology Available To All.

6. Enabling Space Development:  Current obstacles to developing space are cost, reliability, safety, and performance.  Nanotechnology will solve these through improved fuels, smart materials, uniforms and environments.  Read more from Foresight at Enabling Space Development.

The future does hold a bright promise for nanotechnology and its applications.  There are, of course, concerns about the potential evil applications of nanotechnology.  For an interesting view into some of these, I’d suggest you read  The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

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