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”

Friday Gadget: The Hummingbird Robot

AeroVironment has been designing and building small, portable, reliable, and rugged unmanned aerial platforms designed for front-line day/night reconnaissance and surveillance.   One of the projects they are working on now is  a tiny drone that looks and flies like a hummingbird, flapping its little robotic wings to stay in the air. 

Check out the video here at YouTube (2:18 minute video…hummingbird technology displayed 50 seconds into video)

Based on what I’ve read, apparently this first version of the ‘robot’ has only stayed aloft for 20 seconds at a time so far.  But that short flight was enough to show the potential of a whole new class of miniature spies, inspired by nature.  The news is that Darpa just handed AeroVironment, more money to research and develop a second version of this Hummingbird.  

The goals of Darpa’s NAV program ….

“The NAV program will push the limits of aerodynamic and power conversion efficiency, endurance, and maneuverability for very small, flapping wing air vehicle systems. The goals of the NAV program — namely to develop an approximately 10 gram aircraft that can hover for extended periods, can fly at forward speeds up to 10 meters per second, can withstand 2.5 meter per second wind gusts, can operate inside buildings, and have up to a kilometer command and control range — will stretch our understanding of flight at these small sizes and require novel technology development.” – Dr. Todd Hylton, DARPA program manager as quoted in AviationWeek

If you sit back and imagine where this technology is ultimately going, it’s fair to realize that we will end up with nano-sized hummingbirds loaded with all types of sensors and deployed all over the place for applications ranging from security surveillance to birds-eye view video coverage of sporting events.  Reminds me of the nano-bots deployed in Neal Stephenson's 1995 book, The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

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

For more information:

Technology Review: 10 Emerging Technologies

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review has released its annual report on 10 Emerging Technologies of 2009.   I always look forward to this article for it consistently reports on the interesting work going on in labs and academic institutions.  The articles also provide a human element, telling us the person behind the work…how they have worked hard to innovate in the field they are researching.

The 10 emerging technologies MIT presents in this article have the potential to create fundamental shifts in areas from energy to healthcare, computing to communications.  Some of the listed technologies could reach the market within the year, others may take years, but all are expected to have a huge impact in the years ahead.  All of them are interesting to read and think about.  Here the list along with lots of links for more information.

  1. Liquid Battery:  Donald Sadoway, a materials chemistry professor at MIT, has developed a liquid battery that could store enough electricity to allow cities to run on solar power at night.   For more information:  Liquid Battery  
  2. Traveling-wave Reactor:  John Gilleland, manager of nuclear programs at Intellectual Ventures, is leading the development of a reactor that would run on depleted uranium, making nuclear power safer and less expensive.   For more information:  Traveling Wave Reactor 
  3. Paper Diagnostic Test:   George Whitesides, a professor at Harvard University, is using paper to create easy-to-use medical tests that could make it possible to quickly and cheaply diagnose a range of diseases in the developing world.   For more information:  Paper Diagnostics 
  4. Biological Machines: Michel Maharbiz, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed interfaces between machines and living systems that could give rise to a new generation of cyborg devices.  Michel's wirelessly controlled beetle could one day be used for surveillance or search-and-rescue missions.   For more information:  Biological Machines 
  5. $100 Genome:  Han Cao, founder of BioNanomatrix, has designed a nanofluidic chip that could dramatically lower the cost of genome analysis.  Cao's chip could cut DNA sequencing costs dramatically.  Combined with the right sequencing technology, Cao’s chip could allow doctors to tailor medical treatment to a patient’s unique genetic profile, map new genes linked to specific diseases, and quickly identify new viruses and outbreaks.   For more information:  $100 Genome 
  6. Racetrack Memory:  IBM fellow Stuart Parkin has created an entirely new type of data storage on an ultradense memory chip using magnetic nanowires.  This “racetrack memory” could eventually replace all other forms of computer memory and lead to tiny, rugged, and inexpensive portable devices.   For more information:  Racetrack Memory   
  7. HashCache:  Vivek Pai, a computer scientist at Princeton University, has created a new method for storing Web content that could make Internet access speedier and more affordable around the world.   For more information:  HashCache 
  8. Intelligent Software Assistant:  Adam Cheyer, cofounder of the Silicon Valley startup Siri, is leading the design of powerful new software that acts as a personal aide.  This virtual personal-assistant software helps users interact more effectively with Web services to complete tasks such as booking travel or finding entertainment.   For more information:  Intelligent Software Assistant  
  9. Software-Defined Networking:  Stanford computer scientist Nick McKeown believes that remotely controlling network hardware with software can bring the Internet up to speed.   He has developed a standard called OpenFlow that allows researchers to tap into Internet switches and routers to easily test new networking technologies with the click of a mouse—all without interrupting normal service.   For more information:  Software-Defined Networking 
  10. Nanopiezotronics:  Zhong Lin Wang, a materials scientist at Georgia Tech, is pioneering the field of nanopiezotronics.  Wang is creating piezoelectric nanowires that generate electricity using tiny environmental vibrations; he believes they could power implantable medical devices and serve as tiny sensors.   For more information:  Nanopiezoelectronics 

Some of this year's choices, such as #3 – paper-based medical tests and #8 – Intelligent software that acts as a personal assistant, could reach the market within a year.  Others, like #4 – biological machines and #10 nanopiezotronics, could take longer but promise fundamental shifts in fields from computing to medicine, communications to manufacturing.  Its worth noting that three of the technologies are nanotechnology-based:  #5, #6, and #10.

For more information, see Technology Review's article 10 Emerging Technologies of 2009 .  Also the prior year's articles are also interesting to read

MSN Health: 9 Mind-Boggling Medical Technologies

This is a summary of was an article titled "Mind-Boggling Medical Technologies" that recently appeared on MSN's Health website.   Article here http://health.msn.com/health-topics/slideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=100217759 .  The article provided overviews of 9 emerging technologies in the medical field.  Some of them may seem far fetched, but I suspect there are many scientists working on these ideas and we will no doubt see many of them in our lifetime.

  1. Blood bots.  Someday surgeons will guide small robots through the body.  These robots may perform certain tasks, like clean plaque-filled vessels, slice off tissue for biopsies, or deliver targeted drugs
  2. Thought-controlled artificial limbs.  In the future a biological interface would link a patient's nervous system to an artificial limb that responds to thought.
  3. Brain-clot vacuum cleaner.  In the same way a vacuum cleaner suctions up debris, a device called the Penumbra is being tested that could suction life-threatening blood clots out of a stroke patient's brain.
  4. Deep transcranial magnetic therapy.  This technology sends an electromagnetic pulse through the skull and can induce neural excitation or inhibition deep inside the brain and is being tested for treatment of depression, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even eating disorders.
  5. Breathalyzers for disease diagnosis.  This emerging technology will perform tests on a person's breath that might reveal a range of illnesses or conditions, including cancer, asthma and many others.
  6. Diagnosing Alzheimer's with a blood test.  Diagnosing Alzheimer's by means of a simple blood test may become a reality in the foreseeable future. 
  7. Spit here to detect breast cancer.  Researchers are trying to develop a simple breast cancer test that uses a person's saliva.
  8. Implantable nano wires to monitor blood pressure.  A little invasive, but researchers are working on an idea to implant small wires (we are talking very, very small wires) in the body to remotely monitor blood pressure
  9. Laser-powered heart beats.  This technology uses lasers to stimulate a release of calcium ions within the heart, which can restore a heart to a steady beat.

This was an interesting list to read.  Healthcare Technology is such an amazing  imagine industry.  We are living in an age where technology advancements in healthcare are happing rapidly.  The next 50-100 years we will see so many more fantastic innovations.  I can only hope that we find a way to deliver these innovations and other important medical advancements to less developed nations.

THE FUTURIST: Ten Forecasted Trends

THE FUTURIST is a bi-monthly magazine published by the  World Future Society'.   The Nov-Dec 2008 edition's cover story is "Outlook 2009".  In the magazine, there is a list of Top Ten Forecasts for 2009 and beyond.

The FUTURIST always has a flair for dramatic, attention-grabbing prediction/forecasting lists and this year's is no exception.  Here is a summary of this year's list…

  1. Every sound / movement can be recorded by 2030.  By the late 2010s, ubiquitous, unseen nanodevices will provide seamless communication and surveillance among all people everywhere.
  2. Bioviolence becomes a greater threat as the technology becomes more accessible.  Bacteria and viruses could be altered to increase their lethality or to evade antibiotic treatment.
  3. The car's days as king of the road may soon be over.  More powerful wireless communication that reduces demand for travel, flying delivery drones to replace trucks, and policies to restrict the number of vehicles owned in each household are among potential developments.
  4. Careers to become more specialized.  For example, instead of simply majoring in business, more students are beginning to explore niche majors such as sustainable business, strategic intelligence, and entrepreneurship.
  5. The world's legal systems will be networked.  The Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), a database of local and national laws for more than 50 participating countries will lay the groundwork for a more universal understanding of the diversity of laws between nations and will create new opportunities for peace and international partnership.
  6. Professional knowledge will become obsolete almost as quickly as it's acquired.  An individual's professional knowledge is becoming outdated at a much faster rate than ever before.  Rapid changes in the job market and work-related technologies will necessitate job education for almost every worker.
  7. The race for biomedical and genetic enhancement.  Humanity is ready and eager to pursue biomedical and genetic enhancement.
  8. Urbanization will hit 60 percent by 2030.   As more of the world's population lives in cities, rapid development to accommodate them will make existing environmental and socioeconomic problems worse. 
  9. The Middle East will become more secular while religious influence in China will grow.  Popular support for religious government will decline in the Middle East.  Religion in China will likely increase as an indirect result of economic activity and globalization.
  10. Access to electricity will reach 83 percent of the world by 2030.  Electrification, at 73 percent in 2000, may reach 83 percent of the world's people by 2030.  Electricity is fundamental to raising living standards and access to the world's products and services.

Access the full detail here  Top Ten Forecasts for 2009 and beyond.

Most of these seem like they are safe bets to me to be key trends by 2030, except for number 1 and 3.  I think those are much longer term trend (e.g. out another 100 years).