Tiny technology promises big rewards. Some may already be in your closet.
It’s A Small World
To see nano particles and manipulate them, scientists use high-powered microscopes that must be maintained and operated in a carefully controlled environment. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Measurement Laboratory, the room is kept ultraclean so particles from the air—and from the operators—won’t contaminate the device. And to prevent vibrations, the instrument is anchored to a 5,000-ton block of concrete 40 feet (12 meters) below ground. Researchers here are expanding the boundaries of nanotechnology, discovering unforeseen uses for common materials.
At the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Immersive Visualization Facility, mathematician Howard Hung experiences a quantum dot-a semiconductor crystal just a few nanometers in size. Interacting with such objects in a 3-D landscape instead of looking at images of them enables scientists to “easily perceive complex relationships,” says Hung. Such insight is crucial because the properties of basic materials can radically change when they are nano size. For instance, scientists have developed glass that can withstand temperatures up to 1800°F (982°C) for more than two hours and tiny gold-plated spheres that can destroy cancer cells in mice without harming healthy tissue.
The Future of Light?
Workers expose colored LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, to high currents, temperatures, and humidity to test the devices’ long-term reliability at a semiconductor factory in Durham, North Carolina. Using nano-engineered molecules to emit light-generating photons, LEDs are energy efficient. According to a U.S. Department of Energy study, such solid-state lighting could replace traditional light sources over the next two decades and decrease U.S. energy consumption by nearly 30 percent.
Building Blocks of Nanotechnology
Nature can turn carbon into diamonds; humans can turn carbon into nano tubes. Though an enormous number of these microscopic threads resemble a big pile of chimney soot (top), it weighs only as much as 50 carats of diamonds (bottom). nano tubes are stronger than steel wires, carry a thousand times more electricity than copper wires, and can support more than a million times their own weight. They’re also the cornerstone of a molecular science that is manipulating ordinary materials so they behave in extraordinary ways.
A Vision of Hope
Although legally blind, Terry Byland can see an image of the letter t with the help of MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System) technology. Sixteen electrodes surgically implanted in Byland’s retina are connected to a camera embedded in his glasses. The camera captures an image that is converted into digital data and then sent to his implant, which generates a pattern of electrical pulses. The pulses (their various current levels appear on an array of circles behind Byland) are then transmitted to his retina. The technology is now being tested in a clinical trial at the University of Southern California’s Doheny Eye Institute. If the next generation of implants are perfected on the much smaller nano level, it could help blind patients recover lost vision.