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The World's Tiniest Machines

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week for developments in nanotechnology heralds a new era in science, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic induction 185 years ago. And like electricity, nanotechnology could influence the world in dramatic ways, not even imaginable today.

The world’s tiniest machines

The Nobel Laureates developed molecular machines, which are incredibly tiny devices assembled one molecule at a time, including a working motor, a lifting machine, a micro-muscle, and even a four wheel drive vehicle, all of which can only be seen with the most powerful electron microscopes. While these lab experiments are novel curiosities, the implications are huge, and Canada is on the forefront of pushing this research forward.

Many universities offer degree programs on the subject while organizations such as the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are conducting fundamental research on these new novel materials.

Amazing potential to change our world

The potential applications for nanotechnology are huge, and could enter almost all aspects of our lives. Nano-machines could enter the bloodstream to deliver cancer drugs to precise targets, reducing the dosage needed, or carry out DNA repair. Artificial muscles would have a soft, natural grip, and biochips could be made to restore function to lost nerves.

Molecular computer chips would be smaller than current silicon-based chips, and the computers themselves could be made of flexible material that would roll up into your pocket instead of a hard body stuffed into a carrying case. There will be miracle products that are super thin, super strong, super smooth, super slippery, the list is endless.  In fact, most researchers would admit that they really don’t know how far nanotechnology will go, which is why it is worth pursuing.

This time of great potential for new technology is similar to the experiments of Michael Faraday who worked with magnets and electric currents to develop the electric motor in 1821 and went on to discover magnetic induction, the principle behind generators and transformers. While recognizing these basic principles were important, and held great potential, Faraday could not have imagined the global electrical grid, countless household electrical appliances, the internet, and smartphones. Yet they all came out of his simple experiments in a laboratory more than a century and a half ago.

And like electricity, which runs invisibly through wires and circuits, we won’t see most of nanotechnology. We will simply enjoy the benefits of batteries that last much longer, improved solar panels, materials that repair themselves, no more needles at the doctor, and a whole myriad of conveniences yet to be imagined.

There have been revolutions in technology since people discovered that metals made better tools than stone, or that computer chips could calculate better than mechanical machines. These are exciting times to be alive at the beginning of what could be another powerful game changer in human achievement.


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