Future Tense

What the Heck Is Nanotech?

A Futurography guide to technology on a very small scale.

Nanoechnology could radically transform our experience of material culture.

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So I know nanotech is both really tiny and a really big deal.

Thanks for getting that joke out of the way.

But also my eyes glaze over whenever someone starts to talk about graphene or nanotubes. What is nanotech, exactly? And should I care?

In the broadest sense, nanotech refers to the deliberate manipulation of matter on an atomic scale. That means it’s arguably as old as our understanding of atoms themselves. To listen to nanoevangelists, the technology could radically transform our experience of material culture, allowing us to assemble anything and everything—food, clothing, and so on—from raw atomic building blocks. That’s a bit fantastical, of course, but even skeptics would admit that nanotech has enabled some cool advances.


Actual conversations around the technology have been building since at least the late 1950s, when famed physicist Richard Feynman gave a seminal talk titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he laid out the promise of submolecular engineering. In that presentation—and a 1984 follow-up of the same name—Feynman argued that working at the nanoscale would give us tremendous freedom. If we could manipulate atoms properly, he suggested, we could theoretically “write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin.”


In that sense, Feynman was literally talking about available space, but what really makes nanotechnology promising is that atomic material sometimes behaves differently at that infinitesimal scale. At that point, quantum effects and other properties start to come into play, allowing us to employ individual atoms in unusual ways. For example, silver particles have antibacterial qualities, allowing them to be employed in washing machines and other appliances. Much of the real practice of nanotech today is focused on exploring these properties, and it’s had a very real impact in all sorts of material science endeavors. The most exciting stuff is still ahead: Engineers believe that single-atom-thick sheets of carbon—the graphene stuff you didn’t want to talk about—might have applications in everything from water purification to electronics fabrication.


You say this stuff is small. How small, exactly?

So small! As the National Nanotechnology Initiative explains, “In the International System of Units, the prefix ‘nano’ means one-billionth, or 10-9; therefore one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.” To put that into perspective, the NNI notes that a human hair follicle can reach a thickness of 100,000 nanometers. To work at this scale is to work far, far beyond the capacities of the naked eye—and well outside those of conventional microscopes.


Can we even see these things, then?

As it happens, we can, thanks in large part to the development of scanning tunneling microscopes, which allow researchers to create images with resolutions of less than a nanometer. Significantly, these machines can also allow their users to manipulate atoms, which famously enabled the IBM-affiliated physicists Don Eigler and Erhard K. Schweizer to write his company’s logo with 35 individual xenon atoms in 1989.


What I do know about nanotech is that it involves something called gray goo. Gross.

Gray goo is the nanorobot-takeover scenario of the nanotech world. Here’s the gist: Feynman proposed that we could build an ever-smaller series of telepresence tools. The idea is that you make a small, remotely controlled machine that then allows you to make an even smaller machine, and so on until you get all the way down to the nanoscale. By the time you’re at that level, you have machines that are literally moving atoms around and assembling them into other tiny robots.

Feynman treated this as little more than an exciting thought experiment, but others—most notably, perhaps, engineer K. Eric Drexler—took it quite seriously. In his 1986 book Engines of Creation, Drexler proposed that we might be able to do more than build machines capable of manipulating atomic material—autonomous and self-replicating machines that could do all of this work without human intervention. But Drexler also warned that poorly controlled atomic replicators could lead to what he called the “gray goo problem,” in which those tiny machines start to re-create everything in their own image, eradicating all organic life in their path.


Drexler, in other words, helped spark both enthusiasm about the promise of nanotech and popular panic about its risks. Both are probably outsized, relative to the scale at which we’re really working here.

It’s been, like, 30 years since Drexler wrote that book. Do we actually have tiny self-replicating machines yet?


Will we?

Probably not anytime soon, no. And maybe never: In a 2001 Scientific American article, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist Richard E. Smalley articulated something he named the “fat fingers problem”: It would be impracticably difficult to create a machine capable of manipulating individual atoms, since the hypothetical robot would need multiple limbs in order to do its work. The systems controlling those limbs would be larger still, till you get to the point where working at the nanoscale is impractical. Winking back at Feynman, Smalley quipped, “there’s not that much room.”


Smalley’s objections didn’t convince everyone—Drexler least of all—but ultimately those microbots aren’t really what most scientists and engineers will have in mind if they tell you that they’re talking about nanotech. Instead, they likely just mean that they work at the nanoscale.

And anyway, even our cutting-edge technology is a far cry from tiny, self-assembling robots, which means gray goo scenarios probably shouldn’t keep you up at night.


What if I’m addicted to worrying about things? What should I worry about?

In the last 20 years or so, nanomaterials have become increasingly common in consumer goods: For example, Schoeller, a major textile manufacturer, applies a so-called NanoSphere treatment to some fabrics, to make them more resistant to water and dirt while also maintaining breathability. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars counts 1,628 such items that have reached the market since 2005 alone. You can find nanomaterials in everything from pants to nail lacquer to plaster.


Some have expressed concerns about these materials: Studies have indicated, for example, that inhaling carbon nanotubes might be bad for your lungs, potentially leading to fibrosis. Such problems could be an issue in the manufacturing process, but it’s not immediately clear that they would cause issues for actual consumers of those products: If there are nanotubes in your bike’s frame, you’re probably not going to end up breathing enough of them in to cause any real damage.

But there’s also good news! Nanotech offers real potential in medicine. We might, for example, see nanotechnological tools such as quantum dots used to help facilitate diagnosis and treatment of cancers. But nanotech will likely play more of a supporting role than a starring one, facilitating and amplifying existing biomedical strategies.


So when we talk about nanotech, we’re talking about manufacturing, and gray goo, and medicine, and a whole lot of stuff that seems … not terribly related.

Yup. Really, nanotech is not a discipline or field in its own right so much as a broad umbrella that encompasses a wide array of other areas of inquiry. From this perspective, it’s likely to be more of a bridge toward innovation in those fields rather than a singularly transformative force in its own right.

So how far away are we from seeing really revolutionary nanotech in action?

Predictions are never a good idea, but: It’ll be a while. For instance, the real manufacturing revolution with nanotech will likely come when it begins to be used more widely to produce miniscule transistors and other semiconductor systems. That deployment of the technology has the potential to revolutionize electronics of all kinds, but even the most enthusiastic industry projections still suggest that we’re 10 to 15 years away from seeing nanoelectronics make their way to market on a truly meaningful scale.

Partway through the 1984 version of his classic lecture, Feynman suggests that we need to speak not of “what’s practical today, but what’s in principle practical.” He proposed that it might be possible to “build a computer in which each bit … is one atom large,” gesturing toward an early version of quantum computing. Ultimately, that may be the true launching pad of more transformative nanotech.

The White House recently announced a grand challenge along these lines, which argues that over the next decade “nanotechnology innovations will need to be developed in close coordination with new computer architectures and informed by our growing understanding of the brain.” If that pans out, nanotech may change our lives after all, in ways big and small.

This article is part of the nanotechnology installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.