Ten ways nanotechnology is changing the world

From diamonds and swimwear to self-repairing plastic, here are the ten hottest nano developments to watch for in the coming decade

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Keithley.com recently published a neat little infographic on all the ways nanotechnology is reshaping our weak mortal flesh, which was duly reproduced on every tech/health-related website this side of the moon. They mostly focused on the human body itself, but there are broader nanotech (and nano-related) developments afoot that could pave the way for better bio-integration and a greater sense of social acceptance when it comes to tiny robots invading our lives. I think everyone can agree that we should take all of this tech bounty with a generous pinch of salt. Here are ten critical nano-developments we should watch out for in the coming decade.

DIAMONDS AREN'T FOREVER 

Nanodiamonds last for a few seconds before devolving back into their plebian coal origins, making them completely un-ideal candidates for engagement rings and other such sentimental gifts (or perhaps the perfect candidate, depending). The process involves firing a high-powered electron beam at anthracite coal, which knocks hydrogen atoms off the coal and creates a chemical reaction that produces tiny microdiamond for mere seconds. The practical application here would be the creation of thin diamond materials (less than 20 nanometers thick) without the massive amount of pressure that “real” natural diamonds require, though the technology and nanodiamonds are still unstable.

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The dark spots here are nanodiamonds Courtesy of Billups Lab, Rice University

BIO-INSPIRED NANOTECH

Australian and Chinese researchers recently created a “superhydrophobic nanostructure” based on the eye structure of a common green-bottle fly. Most significantly, this is a great step for anti-corrosive, “anti-fog” materials, which could increase the lifespan of average consumer electronics and visual/lenswear, or basically anything used in a moisture-rich environment. There’s also been a sensational amount of attention paid to the infamous DNA-nanorobots-in-cockroaches project, with the end goal of using nanorobotics to diagnose and treat diseases. The bots are also called “origami bots” due to their flexible, unfoldable nature, and can communicate with each other within an organic body. Cockroaches are pretty much where it ends for now, but one researcher expressed hopes for human trials in the next five years or so. (On a side note, there’s also an “internet of pigs” now, which might prove beneficial to us, given that pig insides are remarkably close to our own).

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The common green-bottle fly Joseph Berger

HIGH-SPEED NANOMOTORS

The world’s smallest, fastest nanomotor has been unveiled at the University of Texas at Austin, bringing fresh hope to the future of bionic implants and other bio-related apparatus that rely on synthetic motors: “the nanomotor could fit inside a human cell and is capable of rotating for 15 continuous hours at a speed of 18,000 RPMs, the speed of a motor in a jet airplane engine. Comparable nanomotors run significantly more slowly, from 14 RPMs to 500 RPMs, and have only rotated for a few seconds up to a few minutes.” What this means is a world of tiny, versatile motors that require smaller amounts of energy to operate – on a practical level, it means better drug delivery systems because of the speed at which the nanomotors can mix, pump and deliver biochemical to living cells.

SELF-REPAIRING PLASTIC 

The words “artificial vascular system” are fairly straightforward to parse, but the social impact of what is essentially self-healing plastic is going to resonate around the world, and basically offer us a new platform with which to revolutionize human industry. Combined with the self-assembling features of 4D printing, self-repairing plastic uses special chemical reactions to fill and then solidify the offending crack/hole.

NANOTECH SWIMWEAR

So this is really the pinnacle of nanotech as we know it today – completely waterproof, “hydrophobic” material for swimming trunks. The idea of “hydrophobic nanotech” clothing isn’t new, but Frank Anthony’s new line of swim trunks comes with a brand new feature – a lifelong promise of nanotech efficacy. There isn’t much to sell here because nobody likes emerging from a swimming pool clad in what appears to be a soggy Kleenex swamp beast. Of course, we’d like to see this tech expanded to nobler areas, like rainwear and hazardous occupations-that-involve-water-wear, and various other subcategories of water-related apparel, but for right now, we’ll settle with never having a wet ass.

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Nanotech 'hydrophobic' swimwear damngeeky.com

NANO-FOOD

The unregulated world of nanotech-in-food is both vast and disturbing, mostly because we’ve been consuming foodstuffs with tiny metal bits in it for a decent stretch of time now. With Monsanto in everyone’s sights, it doesn’t seem that far of a stretch to imagine that our milk (and other foodstuffs, presumably) is full of tiny little nanoparticles of unknown constitution: “the PEN database lists 96 food items currently on US grocery shelves that contain unlabeled nano ingredients…which now contain  nano-size titanium dioxide. As recently as 2008, only eight US food products were known to contain nanoparticles…a more than tenfold increase in jusr six years.” The titanium dioxide itself is used to enhance food color, so it’s not really something crucial to our health or nutrition, but it’ll be virtually impossible to reverse the argument for food aesthetics in this day and age, so perhaps we should focus on using nano for good, and not for looks? Just a thought. (For the record, titanium dioxide is also used to “eat” pollution in other scenarios.)

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Nanofood – not a bird, neither is it a plane nanoandme.org

2D TECH 

No, this isn’t the kind of geometric dimension you’re thinking about – the two dimensions here refer to everyone’s fave new material, graphene, and something called molybdenum disulfide to create a new ultra-light, ultra-malleable material that is just one atom thick. Basically, this is the beginning of thin, light, actually feasible wearables that don’t look comically clunky and/or out of an old Tron prop auction. The researchers behind this new confection describe it as a “new toolbox” for electronics because of its flexibility and transparency (literally, it’ll be see-through). A few potential things that could be made with this new class of material include “lasers, tunneling microscopes…a variety of transistors…new types of personal technology devices…or as a part of hidden sensors.”

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The delicate technicalities of creating two-dimensional tech Courtesy of ACS

LET THERE BE LIGHT

Researchers have found that bionic nanoparticles can “self-assemble” and basically replicate a similar process to photosynthesis (changing light into energy). Using a unique combination of bionic and organic components and materials, scientists have successfully created a way to harness sunlight and fuel chemical reactions via a semiconductor. The tricky part is the Goldilocks problem of getting the nanoparticles “just right,” as well as ensuring that the nanoparticles and proteins have compatible charges.

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Apparently the self-assembling bioparticles were inspired by Terminator AFP PHOTO, Yoshikazu Tsuno

FOG COMPUTING 

The cloud is pretty much part of everyday modern life now, but Cisco is already moving on and talking about fog computing as the next big shift in information architecture and how we interact with the “internet of things.” For one thing, cloud computing eats tons of bandwidth and requires painful resources to efficiently move data around at the speed we’re used to. Like the cloud, fog computing is wireless based, but focuses on ow latency and geographical/location awareness. Christopher Mims writes for the Wall Street Journal: “Whereas the cloud is "up there" in the sky somewhere, distant and remote and deliberately abstracted, the "fog" is close to the ground, right where things are getting done. It consists not of powerful servers, but weaker and more dispersed computers of the sort that are making their way into appliances, factories, cars, street lights and every other piece of our material culture.” What we can expect from newly-emerging tech is a specific type of attenuation married to a quasi-insidious pervasiveness that will propel society firmly into the next century. 

CONTROLLING INORGANIC GROWTH

This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Scientists have successfully slowed the molecular growth of an aluminum-bismuth alloy with the use of nanoparticles, which could lead to self-maintaining machinery, specifically for instance, “self-lubricating bearings for engines” on a mass-produced scale. One researcher explained the process as analogous to plants growing on a “controlled diet that limits their growth…it is like an atomic diet control for material synthesis.” We’re especially interested to see this tech applied to transit/transport, as well as medical tech, or basically in any kind of situation where controlled long-term mechanics are an issue.

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Nanotech can help to control inorganic growth...sort of like a bonsai, but not
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