Nanotechnology has already been reshaping the future for some years now. But with the world at large finally awakening to the possibilities of harnessing particles as small as 10-9 meters to do many, many things, the growth is going to be explosive. Here are some cutting-edge developments in the field.
What if we could craft an item by literally forging it atom by atom? Ever since IBM scientists spelt out their company’s name using 35 Xenon Atoms way back in 1989 using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, people have been trying to find a viable way of arranging atoms in 3D to make objects (The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope can only affect the top layer of atoms so you can only make 2D Objects) Scientists have also known for long that while electron microscopy provides quite reliable and accurate magnification, it has an annoying tendency to nudge an atom or two out of its place in the lattice due to the stream of electrons it emits. But with the advancements in heavy computing and deep learning, it is now possible to use this effect for good. A particular variety of Electron Microscope known as Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope or STEM is used to focus the beam of electrons on a particular atom in a material and nudge it to a new place. At the same time, the magnification provided by the STEM is used to analyse the new structure of the material with the atom moved and a computer decides to either move the same atom some more or nudge a different atom. If you prefer a more scientific explanation, here’s some further reading: http://dgit.in/AtmFrge. This cycle repeats over and over again until all the required atoms form a new lattice and thereby a completely new material, which can offer up exciting avenues for developing new items that have specific purposes.
Move over BluRay, Glass Discs are the new best thing
There used to be a time when people used to actually struggle to fill 700 MB CD-ROMs. Now with the rapid adoption of faster bandwidths and people clamouring for higher and higher quality, even 128 gig BluRay discs are fast becoming too much of a constraint. Enter the ‘glass disc’. It’s actually very similar to a normal CD-ROM. In a CD, there are several narrow concentric rings or ‘tracks’ expanding outward from the centre. When you write something to the CD, a laser beam burns a hole or a ‘pit’ 1mm deep to represent a 1 in binary. The places where there is not pit is called ‘land’ and this represents 0. So when you finish writing the CD and pop it into a reader, a laser beam is focussed on each track in turn and it is reflected back differently based on whether there is a pit or land and the reader, therefore, ‘reads’ the data as the CD rotates. Now, for a glass disc, they use a special laser to burn in data in nanoparticles and there are FIVE unique states to mark it instead of just two. And since we are dealing with orders of nanometers rather than millimetres here, you can fit in way more tracks on a single disc, leading up to a storage of 360 TB per disc. For comparison, the largest single HDD you can buy is 12 TB WD Helium and for an SSD it is a 60TB monster that Samsung recently showcased (which is also expected to cost about $30k per piece so there’s that). With the remarkable physical strength and anti-corrosiveness, the data can theoretically last several billion years if stored carefully. The bad news? While the hardware to read 5D storage is already (sort of) available commercially (albeit very expensive), the lasers to write it aren’t going to be making an appearance anywhere else beyond the labs for a while yet.
Diamond nano tubes?
If you have ever secretly wanted Elvis Presley’s rhinestone studded jumpsuit, here is your chance. Even better, it’s made out of diamonds so you can pull a suave “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, no?” pick up line (We kid, we kid, please don’t do this). A carbon chemist named Dr Haifei Zhan from the Queensland University of Technology, Australia is working on incorporating diamond nanotubes (Basically, a line or tube of carbon that is one atom thick that mimics a diamond’s structure, making it incredibly strong, light AND flexible) into more fabrication and manufacturing as well as everyday usage. To know more about his research go to http://dgit.in/DmndThrd. He hopes that one day, “DNT may become as ubiquitous as plastic”. He also says due to its much-increased flexibility over its plebian carbon nanotube cousin, you can incorporate it into clothing, from bulletproof vests to rugged, working gear. Maybe even diamond jeans. How cool would that be?
Advanced independent toothbrushes that don’t need no toothpaste
What will the Japanese ever come up with next? Time and time again, they’ve proven they are ahead of the world’s meta curve (Seriously, look at their Kit Kat flavours). With toothbrushes, they’ve thought up one that doesn’t need toothpaste. The admittedly cool looking transparent brushes need to just be dipped into water to work. The bristles are specially tapered and there are some mineral ions bonded there using some nanotechnological juju so when you brush, you don’t hurt your enamel but get all the plaque, detritus and other icky things out and the minerals pass onto your teeth, making them stronger and whiter. Here’s where to buy them: http://dgit.in/MskaTBrush. You know you want to 😉
Graphene, the miracle material
Ah, the science world’s wonder kid, Graphene. Who knew a single layer of carbon atoms attached in a hexagonal manner would be able to do so much? Adding to the list of absolutely amazing properties Graphene already has : Let’s see, one of the thinnest materials known to man (it’s pretty hard beating that 1 atom thickness), one of the lightest, one of the strongest (100-300 times stronger than steel!), one of the best heat conductors at room temperature, one of the best electricity conductors ever. All these make it the perfect candidate for making flexible electronics, making quantum bit computers and a whole host of other functions (phew). In fact, it has been recently found out that a graphene sieve can make seawater drinkable. This is huge for underdeveloped countries who are struggling for clean, potable water but can’t afford the expensive desalination plants. There can be LifeStraw-esque products that can be easily distributed to people to make water scarcity a thing of the past. Overall, graphene is essentially the swiss knife of scientific inventions.
Or “Yes, we’re going to bash on something just after we praised it” While graphene is wonderfully amazing, it’s still helluva a lot of expensive. To give you a perspective, a micrometre flake of gold costs about $0.0004 while the same amount of graphene costs over $1000! Even though you need relatively less amount of graphene to do anything compared to conventional materials, it’s still pretty expensive to procure pure graphene from graphite. Borophene is a proposed alternative that shares pretty much all the same functionalities and properties of graphene (it might even be a better conductor of electricity) and more importantly, would be easier and cheaper to upscale production than graphene. There are a few minor tradeoffs though, so scientists still have to economize graphene production as a first priority. But now we have a viable alternative in Borophene. Or should we say “Brophene”? No? Ok we’ll show ourselves out 🙁
Voyeur into the secrets of the chemical bond
Nothing is safe from the prying eyes of Science. Researchers have found out that they can focus light down to a size smaller than its wavelength (here before thought impossible) using a quirk gold atoms exhibit to create the world’s smallest magnifying glass. They made a bump in the highly conductive gold nanoparticles (Gold is one of the best metal conductors in the world) to use as an optical cavity that can hold only one molecule. This optical cavity focuses light to less than one billionth of a meter, allowing us to image the actual chemical bonds and other inter and intramolecular reactions in never before seen detail. Here is a more detailed explanation: http://dgit.in/Magnif. This opens up various avenues to studying why exactly anything happens and could lead to several new discoveries in materials and effects. Like making optomechanical harddrives which store data as light vibrations. WHOA!
You would’ve undoubtedly heard about the World’s Blackest Black, a black so black that when you photograph it, it looks like it was Photoshop censored. And of course, the licensing squabble that happened after it and the tiff between several artists. If you haven’t, let us break it down for you – Scientists made a material so black that it absorbed 99.965% of light radiation. They made it of Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays so they called it Vantablack. How …creative. Light usually reflects off a surface when it strikes it but in this, it becomes trapped in the forest of nanotubes and just continuously bounces off them until it dissipates into heat. Then a scandal happened when the artist Anish Kapoor’s studio was given exclusive rights to use the color and the artistic world grew outraged at this blatant discrimination (so much that another artist Stuart Semple created the World’s Pinkest Pink and made it available to everyone but Kapoor which then Kapoor got his hands on and Semple was hurt so he made more exclusive colors like the world’s glitteriest glitter, greenest green, yellowest yellow… we digress. Beg your pardon) Well, as it turns out, there need not have been this much fuss. Scientists have recently discovered Vantablack 2.0, which is so black that not even lasers reflect off of it and spectrometers can’t even analyse it and it is safer and easier to use too! Ninja Assassins are just gonna get even better now… great. Not to mention censor boards.
Quantum Computing say whaaa
Okay, so the idea of quantum computing isn’t recent but there have been some recent updates in this field. Before we get to those, a quick primer. So point number one, computers are being used nearly in every facet of our lives right now and the numbers just keep on going. In a few decades, at this current growth rate, we’ll have to supply more power to computers than what we can produce. This, obviously, is impossible. Increasing power efficiency of computers and increasing production of electricity is just postponing the inevitable. Point number two, a scientist called Rolf Landauer from IBM found that to process any one single bit of information in any computer, a minimum amount of energy must be used. Our computers right now, even the most energy efficient ones use up power several orders of magnitude higher than this minimum amount. Point number three, binary systems use two states 1 and 0 to store information. This severely limits the amount of data you can store and process because effectively, all you can communicate is on and off to the processor. So, quantum computers, to put it very simply use “quantum-mechanical phenomena” or the interaction of several sub-atomic particles to carry out computational processing. It also has two states called qubits (Quantum Bits, get it?) but instead of it just storing the on or off values, it can hold a whole lot more of information based on its position within the atom. If that didn’t confuse you enough, here’s the more scientific version: http://dgit.in/QntmComp. And since it doesn’t take much energy to move these subatomic particles around, it comes within the minimum amount of energy for processing, thereby creating incredibly powerful systems that take very little power to run. Scientists have now gotten much closer to this vision with several discoveries lately. For instance, using extremely small pulses of light to move electrons in a semiconductor and figuring out how gravity affects these particles. This would be based on a similarity noticed between a black hole’s entropy and extremely cold helium atoms.
Targeted medicine nano missiles
Nanotechnology is also used in the field of medicine to create custom drugs that are more effective, safer and are overall better. Recent developments have created smart materials which are injected together with the drugs. They help deliver the drug to the target site quickly and without much attenuation of potency, thereby reducing the doses needed. These materials (it changes depending on what kind of drug you want to inject with it and the target site) also prevent the drug from interacting with other cells and thus reducing the risk of side effects. Researchers are also looking at using nanotechnology to deliver the drugs deep inside cancerous tumours to effectively destroy it from within, which should give better success rates than chemotherapy without the risks or limitations of surgery. Oh, and if you ask us, they should totally name this process as “Blowing up the Death Star” when they explain this to the patients – for the smiles.
This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.