What Is Nanotechnology? Is Nanotechnology Science Fiction?

Most nano-science is speculative at the moment, given the fact that the theoretical applications of nanotechnology are so far-ranging. That being said, according to the “Project on Emerging Technologies” (which is a partnership of Pew Charitable Trusts and the Woodrow Wilson International Scholarship for Scholars), there are 800+ nanotechnology products available for purchase. Also, there are three to four new nanotech products becoming available per week. So nanotechnology exists at present, though it should be stated that these are first generation applications that you probably wouldn’t find very incredible. These nano products are found in the food industry and the cosmetics industry, as well as sunscreen, clothing, surface coatings, household appliances, paints, varnishes and food packaging.

What Is Nanotechnology?

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Nanotechnology was a term invented by famed physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, to describe technology which can manipulate matter on the atomic and even molecular level, measured by the nanometer (or one-billionth of a meter). Theoretically, the ability to manipulate matter on this scale would allow for amazing engineering feats in fields ranging from medicine to industry and just about any other scientific field you can imagine. The claims about what nanotechnology can theoretically do are so great that many science proponents, science opponents and science fiction writers have attached almost magical properties to nano-science. While in the distant future, nanotechnology might be able to do many of the things which scientist and sci-fi writers speculate about right now, at the moment nanotechnology is more about medical science and the manipulation of everyday household products for more beneficial uses. Current nanotech is significantly humbler than what you might expect.

Proper Terms for Nanotechnology

You might be asking what the proper terms for nanotechnology are. Because much of nanotech terminology has been created by science fiction authors, you’ll find a lot of different synonymous terms and colorful appellations. More or less synonymous with “nanotechnology” are terms like nanotech, nanoscience. Small nanorobots (usually appearing vaguely insect-like in artist depictions) can be called nano, nanites, nanonites, nanobots, nanorobots, nanoids, “goo” or even “paste”. Even among the “goo” terms, there are differentiations like gray goo, blue goo and even green goo. So there is a whole nanotechnology lexicon, must of which has little to do with the current state of nanotechnology. In fact, nanorobotics is one small section of the field of nanotechnology. There are also nanomaterials like nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes and fullerenes, nanoelectronic sub-fields like molecular electronics, nanoionics, nanolithography and nanocircuitry, and nanomedicine sub-fields like nanosensors and nanotoxicology.

Are “Nanobots” or “Nanites” Science Fiction?

One worst-case scenario is that human nanoscience will eventually create autonomous microscopic robots called “nanobots” or “nanites” which are capable of reproducing themselves through molecular manipulation. Given both the ability to transform matter to create new materials and the ability to reproduce given the proper materials, the fear is that these nanites would be able to rebuild at an exponential rate, breaking down all matter in their path, until the nano-bots destroy all life on Earth. In this scenario, the nanites would break down matter in their path – even living matter – and use it to reproduce more nanorobots. This process has been colorfully named “gray goo”.

This is a somewhat fantastic outlook on future nanotechnology. Some have suggested that humans could build nanorobots who job it would be to “eat” or destroy these self-replicating robots. These nano-robots are called “blue goo”. Another suggestion is that nanites might find bacteria to be a constant source of danger, because the nanites would be small enough for bacterium to devour or damage. Perhaps a more practical argument against the eventuality of gray goo is that giving a nanite the ability to self-replicate would probably be inefficient and impractical, since this would be an extra function (in addition to their primary function of molecular manipulation) that would require the nano to be bulkier and work at a less than optimal rate. In other words, the principle of specialization means it would be better to build a nano-robot whose specific task it would be to act as a factory for matter-manipulating nanotech.

In any case, gray goo and blue goo nanotechnolgy are something for the far future, so I wouldn’t necessarily get too bent out of shape that nanites may one day destroy the Earth.