Nano-technology has huge innovative potential
- Ground-breaking advances in medicine and materials technology expected
- Improved material properties through modified molecular structures
- Passenger car parts with self-cleaning surfaces and new auxiliary functions
A journey into the cosmos of atoms and molecules
Size certainly does matter. But more often than not, big does not mean better. After all, even the majestic stars in the night sky generate their enormous light energy from the very smallest of sources -- atoms, the tiny building blocks of our universe.
Indeed, it is because the possibilities are so huge in the world of the small that the cosmos of atoms and molecules is exercising a greater pull than ever over scientists everywhere. One of their goals – in simplified terms – is to build up systems directly from individual atoms and molecules and thus achieve maximum miniaturisation, so to speak. Another aim is to give materials previously inconceivable properties by adding different atoms to the mix.
Nano-technology is the term experts refer to as the means of achieving these aims, their entrée to a land which 30 years ago we could never have dreamed would ever be within reach. After all, the empire of the tiniest particles is measured in nanometres, billionths of a metre.
Big hopes have been invested in nano-technology, the binding force for ever smaller machines, controlled by ever smaller chips and containing ever smaller transistors. At the end of the chain stand tiny robots – so small that they can even move through the delicate capillary veins of the human body, breaking up fat deposits or repairing defective cells. Nano-scientists are also searching for ways to develop innovative new medicines and manufacture ultra-strong materials.
1959: The first glimpses inside the nano-cosmos
The renowned US physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Phillips Feynman already had a vision of the possibilities which lay in wait when he developed the basic idea behind nano-technology at the California Institute of Technology in 1959. As is often the way with genius, inspiration was revealed in an improvised speech.
Feynman was the first to plot a course into the "nano-cosmos", a direct path into the world of atoms and molecules. As he saw things, it should be possible to juggle around atoms to your heart’s content and arrange them into structures measuring less than a ten-thousandth of a millimetre in size.
His idea remained just that until the mid-1970s, when biologists discovered how to manipulate the molecules in DNA, where all an organism’s hereditary information is stored. With these first encouraging steps in the gene laboratory, Feynman’s goal of building non-organic machines out of atoms was firmly back on track.
However, even as recently as 1980 the most powerful electron microscope could still provide little more than a blurred vision of atoms – touching or altering them was inconceivable. That was until the invention of the Atomic Force Microscope. This device uses extremely fine tips only about a nanometre in width to feel its way around surfaces. At the same time, these delicate sensors also allow atoms to be moved around at will. Researchers managed this for the first time in 1989 with 35 individual xenon atoms.