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Nanotechnology Explained



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"A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. That's like comparing the size of a marble to the size of Earth. Welcome to the world of nanotechnology" (Kahn 98-99). In nanotechnology, scientists manipulate individual molecules or atoms to create imaginative solutions for today's problems. Nanotechnology has the fortitude to shake the foundations of society. The carbon nanotube, a single product of this science, alone holds a multitude of applications, from exponentially increasing the efficiency of power grids to changing the way satellites are put into orbit. Also, when this art is applied to medicine, impossibilities become possible. Cancer treatments without side effects, reconnection of nerve tissue, and growing whole organs are all made possible through nanomedicines. With such vast and diverse implications, nanotechnology is truly the new frontier.
One of the most important and talked about components of nanotechnology is the carbon nanotube. Carbon is one of the most curiously versatile elements known to mankind. In one configuration, it is black dust and in another, it is a diamond. With nanotechnology, another configuration is possible. According to William Illsey Atkinson, buckytubes are small tubes created from carbon arranged in small, but strong spheres, known as buckyballs, which are arranged into extremely strong tubes (202). These tubes, called nanotubes, have vast promise for the future. On the near horizon for carbon nanotubes are miniscule transistors. Transistors perform myriads of electronic tasks and are thus vital to all appliances and electric devices. Duke University researchers are seeking new ways to build extremely small transistors "out of atom-thick carbon cylinders" (Basgall). The unprecedented size of these transistors will birth a generation of renovated electronics. A team of researchers from the University of Maryland has fabricated a "semiconducting nanotube transistor" that can be used to make computer chips 70 times as powerful as their conventional silicon counterparts (Broersma). This unprecedented jump in performance is not merely impressive, but also hugely beneficial to computing. The smaller computers enabled by the new chips will be much more practical. The computers will make navigation devices in vehicles much more powerful and accurate. Cell phones will house more capabilities, eliminating need for other electronic devices such as mp3 players or, eventually, even laptops. Many cell phones already have Internet and electronic mail capabilities. With the introduction of nanoscale electronics, such functionalities will skyrocket.
On the other side of the spectrum, larger, more powerful computers are in constant demand. Transistors are the main component in a computer's central processor. Engineers are beginning to find great difficulty in fitting more transistors onto a chip. The nanosize transistors are a fraction of the size of today's transistors. Such a size reduction will allow for a significantly larger numbers of transistors on a single chip. With exponentially more powerful processors, computers will possess greatly heightened capabilities. Applications with requirements of huge processing ability, such as programs for analyzing strands of protein or DNA for irregularities, will become much easier to run and, therefore, more commonplace. Also, with modern equipment, rendering a full-length movie can take hours. Nanotechnology's computers will be able to accomplish such a task in only a few minutes. The nanotube transistor will contribute to small, efficient electronics as well as large scale computing.
The carbon nanotube also serves various other significant purposes for electricity. While modern cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitors and television screens are of ample quality, their size makes them impractical. When carbon nanotubes are arranged into a thin sheet that is much stronger and lighter than steel, "buckypaper" is created. Buckypaper makes way for CRTs that are lighter, more energy efficient, and provide better picture (Ray). These properties not only allow for screens "thinner than your average ham sandwich," but may ultimately lead to screens thin enough to be painted onto a wall (Atkinson 209-11). Today's CRTs rely on large tubes to speed up electrons to bombard the screen and create a picture. The nanotube's properties allow the electrons to speed up much faster. Nanotechnology's CRTs will prove most useful in places such as dormitories, where space is a premium. Also, due to the strength of buckypaper, these CRTs will have more versatility. The future may plausibly see enormous CRT displays in ballparks or city squares.
With more help from carbon nanotubes, nanotechnology is plausibly close to breaching thresholds elsewhere. Currently, scientists and engineers must use rockets to achieve orbit with satellites. However, due to the vast strength of nanotubes, an elevator into space may be plausible. A space elevator could be significantly cheaper than conventional space transportation methods. If nanosized solar cells prove sufficient, they may be applied to the elevator and nearly eliminate energy costs. Also, if the first elevator recoups the 150-billion-dollar price tag, a second elevator tower, twice as high, will be constructed. At such a height, putting satellites into orbit requires only a small amount of force (Atkinson 206-08). The concept of an elevator to space may seem fantastic, but the huge tensile strength of carbon nanotubes makes the lift quite possible. The tubes can support a million times their weight and have large surface areas. "Just four ounces of this unwoven material would cover roughly an acre" (Kahn 111). The elevator's base would be a huge lattice of cables made from nanotubes stretching a mile wide and anchored into the bedrock. These cables would range in size up to nearly a kilometer. The standard strut would be able to withstand sixty million pounds of tension and be approximately 12 inches in diameter (Atkinson 207). The elevator would save millions in rockets, rocket fuel, and shuttle repairs, repaying the cost in a few decades. While somewhat fanciful, the space elevator is likely to be the future of launching artificial satellites.
Energy is a growing crisis in the heavily populated modern world, but nanotechnology offers another creative solution. The sun has long been acknowledged as the most abundant energy source usable on Earth. However, modern solar cells are extremely inefficient and costly. Nanotechnology enables much easier production of solar panels. Current solar cells are made in large, expensive facilities. Solar nanostructures are produced in a way resembling the growth of crystals. These solar cells can be inexpensively produced and applied to a common glass window, creating an energy generator (Kahn 104). Once the energy is produced, distribution becomes a problem. Modern metal wires tend to give large amounts of energy off as heat. Nanotubes do not share this inefficiency and can support over a billion amps of electricity per square centimeter. Theoretically, wires made from nanotubes could transport electricity over thousands of miles. With this level of efficiency, energy from solar farms in deserts or wind farms in oceans could be used in cities (Kahn 106). The energy produced and transported by nanotechnology could bring electricity to African villages and urban ghettoes effectively and affordably. Nanotechnology's profound effect on the realm of energy will hold the capacity to benefit millions of people.
Nanotechnology promises to revolutionize medicine on an unprecedented level. Cancer treatments are likely to be in the first wave of nanomedicines. Indeed, treatments derived from nanotechnology which deliver medicine directly to cancer cells have already become available for breast and ovarian cancers as well as for Kaposi's sarcoma. "The next generation of treatments, not yet approved, improves the drugs by delivering them inside individual cancer cells" (Bullis 58-59). Conventional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, are generally "invasive or debilitating," but nanotechnology is providing an alternate method. When "spheres of silica coated with a thin layer of gold" are injected into the bloodstream, they penetrate cancer cells. An infrared laser is then focused on the tumors. The laser passes through and leaves healthy flesh unharmed but heats up the gold and silica particles, killing the harmful cells (Kahn 105). This method shows no sign of negative side effects, unlike the traditional chemotherapy. Conventional chemotherapy treatment destroys not only the malignant cells, but also healthy surrounding tissue. Such destruction causes such side effects as hair loss, an impaired immune system, and nausea. These side effects often cause patients to deem chemotherapy as a last resort. As a result, the patients are likely to postpone such treatment, sometimes waiting far too long. The saving power of nanotechnology's remedy does not lie solely in the ability to destroy cancer cells effectively, but also in the popular appeal of the side effects or, rather, lack thereof.
The usefulness of nanotechnology is not exhausted with one cancer medicine. The science offers yet another alternative to traditional therapies. This alternative utilizes a sort of "Trojan Horse" principle. "The treatment begins with injection of an unremarkable-looking clear fluid. Invisible inside, however, are particles precisely engineered to slip past barriers such as blood vessel walls, latch onto cancer cells, and trick the cells into engulfing them as if they were food." The cells are then flagged with a fluorescent dye and treated with a drug (Bullis 58). These results are beneficial in multiple layers. Most importantly, the particles are apparently ingested solely by the cancer cells, leaving healthy tissues unharmed. In addition, the fluorescent dyes that tag the cells will be invaluable to research purposes. The dye will show up on X-Rays or other scans and researchers can catalogue where cancer is most likely to start its destruction and what growth patterns are commonly demonstrated. Cancer is only rudimentarily understood by doctors. A treatment that aids in the understanding and destruction of this disease is sure to be a welcome solution.
Diagnostics are of constant concern for doctors today. When a specialist diagnoses a disease or condition early enough, the situation usually ends with a successful cure. If the disease progresses too far before diagnosis, however, finding treatment becomes much more difficult and sometimes impossible. Nanotechnology offers a sizeable improvement to modern diagnostic methods. This solution hinges on "nanosize sensors called nanowires that can electronically detect a few protein molecules along with other biochemical markers" (Kahn 108). In order to diagnose a disease such as cancer in early stages, Jim Heath, a Caltech chemist, covers these "nanowires" with materials that bind to particular proteins, antibodies, or DNA fragments, which can signify the disease. Heath collects many thousands of these wires onto a single chip, allowing for cancer detection while it is still in low concentration (Kahn 108, 13). When the wires are introduced into the body, they circulate the blood stream. The biochemical markers then mate with their reciprocal cell, which signifies cancer or some other disease. Once the nanowires are extracted the markers are analyzed for such indicator cells and appropriate action is taken. The swiftness and efficiency of this diagnostic method will likely save numerous lives.
Nanomedicine's importance does not lie solely in the destruction and detection of diseases, but also in the ability to grow tissues. Engineering at the level of nanometers opens doors to growing entire organs using only a few cells from a patient. The principle of this practice involves biodegradable scaffolds in the shape of the desired organs. Utilization of these scaffolds will lie primarily with kidneys, as those organs are in particularly high demand. To begin the procedure, a doctor harvests a patient's kidney cells and places them in a scaffold to grow. "The scaffold is like the frame of a house, except once the house is donethe organ is in place and fed by blood vesselsthe frame disappears" (Mone and Svoboda 62-63). While blood vessels nurture the cells to grow, the full organ takes form. Once the organ is grown, it is transplanted to the patient with little chance of rejection. The chance of rejection is so low because the original cells are from the patient, thus making the finished organ genetically identical to the host. This method of growing organs is already in use. Medical engineers at Wake Forest University announced custom-built bladders successfully transplanted into humans in April 2006 (Mone and Svoboda 63). Custom grown organs will save the lives of countless people who, otherwise, would wait on a list for months or years.
Nanotechnology's minute scaffolds also hold great significance in other areas of medicine. Specifically, injuries involving nerves, which generally end in permanent disability, are soon to behold this significance. A team of scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found a way to reconnect severed neurons. The scientists developed a scaffold material from particles of protein. After disconnecting the optic nerve on several mice, the scientists injected the material into a group of the animals. The mice with the injection regained much of their sight while the control group without the injection remained blind (Brownlee 164). This treatment utilizes a form of the biodegradable scaffolds used in custom grown organs. Patients with severed spines will profit most from this technology. Modernly, injuries to spines usually end in paralysis. When nanotechnology's cure matures into usability, such paralysis is likely to see great minimization.
Nanotechnology is an enormous revolution that is already taking hold of society and changing the course of the future. Paul Alivisatos, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says the manifestation of this science will rival that of plastics (Kahn 103). Every area of life will see new methods, improved products, and higher standards. As with plastic, nanotechnology will become a household word and the new foundation of many sciences. The possibilities of the nanotube range from microscopic transistors to renovated CRTs and an elevator to space. Nanotubes also hold a possible solution to a growing energy crisis. The world of nanomedicine encompasses unique cancer medicines, new diagnostic procedures, and innovative ways of growing tissues. Nanotechnology has the potential to define an era.















Works Cited
Atkinson, William Illsey. Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivably Small. New York: Amacom, 2003.
Basgall, Monte. "Duke Chemists Describe New Kind of Nanotube' Transistor." Duke News 29 Mar. 2004. Duke University. 24 Sep. 2006 .
Broersma, Matthew. "Nanotubes Break Semiconducting Record." CNET News 19 Dec. 2003. 11 Oct. 2006 .
Brownlee, C. "Nanotech Material Reconnects Severed Neurons." Science News 18 Mar. 2006: 164-65. WilsonSelectPlus. First Search. Teutopolis High School Lib., Teutopolis, IL. 12 Sep. 2006 .
Bullis, Kevin. "Nanomedicine." Technology Review 109.1 (2006): 58-59. WilsonSelectPlus.
First Search. Teutopolis High School Lib., Teutopolis, IL. 11 Sep. 2006 .
Kahn, Jennifer. "Nano's Big Future." National Geographic Jun. 2006: 98-119.
Mone, Gregory, and Elizabeth Svoboda. "The 6 Biggest Ideas in Medicine." Popular Science Aug. 2006: 55-63.
Ray, Barry. "FSU Researcher's Buckypaper' is Stronger than Steel and a Fraction of the Weight." FSU News 20 Oct. 2005. FSU. 11 Sep. 2006 .

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