You may recall from the first article on this blog that nanomachines, or nanobots, are tiny robots, too small to be seen by the naked eye. Actually, officially nanotech is “the manipulation of matter sized along one dimension from 1 to 100 nanometers”, but if you can’t imagine exactly how small that is, let’s just just say nanotech involves dealing with very very tiny things, on the scale of individual molecules. When you get that small, the very laws of nature start getting weird.
So as you can guess from that description, nanotech can actually refer to a wide range of subjects, not just the popular image of nanobots, as long as they deal with the very, very tiny. Nevertheless, we’re going to focus mostly on nanobots today, mostly because they’re not as hard to explain as, say, molecular biology.
One other key area of nanotech is materials science, where scientists have managed to make new kinds of materials by manipulating individual atoms. I’m only going to bring this up long enough to mention carbon nanotubes, which are special cylinders made of carbon (obviously) in particular patterns. They’re remarkable for being the strongest and stiffest materials ever discovered, and they’re incredibly thin, with a width of only a few molecules, but a they can be over a hundred million times longer!
So anyway, why are nanobots important? Well, to explain that I’m going to ask you to think back to some of the movies you may have watched as a kid. Did you ever see or hear about a movie where, say, a team of doctors was shrunk down to go inside someone’s body and fix them? We can’t really shrink people, but we can give them remote control of tiny machines. This way a doctor could say “take this pill, and we’ll tell the machines inside to get rid of all the gunk in your arteries”, and they would! And nanobots could do things like this in a bunch of different areas, not just medicine. Imagine nanobots as the ultimate tweasers, capable of building or changing anything, one molecule at a time.
So far we don’t have nanobots that can fight disease or build diamonds, but people are working on that capability right now. What we do have is simple nanobots that can move around, use molecular switches, and/or be remote-controlled. That’s actually a lot more impressive than it sounds and is a very recent development. It turns out it’s really, really hard to build a robot out of as few molecules as possible, and when it’s so small you can’t even see it.
But if you’ve heard about nanobots in pop culture, you may still have a burning question on your mind: what about grey goo? For those of you who don’t know, “grey goo” is a shorthand used for a theoretical apocalypse where nanobots that can build more nanobots end up eating everything. But I have good news! A grey goo scenario couldn’t really happen accidentally, as it would take a lot of effort to make it work. Nanobots can’t automatically build more nanobots, and are actually pretty fragile to things like heat. You can read the opinion of an expert in the matter here if you want to see for yourself.
So all of this may seem a little underwhelming, especially since I chose to focus on the area that’s still mostly in development. And yet, trials are underway for nanobots that could fight cancer, and nanoparticles, which are particles small enough to be considered nanotech, are being used to give mice night vision and manipulate plant genes. Nanotech and nanobots in particular are right at the very cutting edge of science and technology, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!