In 1959, renowned physicist Richard Feynman delivered a prophetic talk to colleagues. He pointed out that no law of nature exists that can prevent scientists from manipulating individual atoms and making almost any product imaginable. It was a bold prediction filled with mind-boggling applications ripped straight from the pages of a science fiction novel.
Now, half a century after Feynman's forecasts, these science fiction conceits are fast becoming scientific fact. And it's all the result of scientists' meticulous investigations into the nanoworld—the atomic realm where distances are measured in billionths of a meter. What we've discovered at the nanoscale has sparked an ever-expanding technological revolution—one that will continue to touch nearly every aspect of human life and will fast become a game-changer in many fields, including
- engineering, where experiments in materials science will deliver new materials with spectacular properties;
- communications, where computers are quickly becoming smaller and more powerful than ever before; and
- medicine, where new technologies can soon help doctors target and treat diseases and illnesses that traditional medical tools can't touch.
In fact, you can already witness the startling power of nanotechnology in once-fantastical but now-possible tools, products, and services such as these:
- Smartphones: These ubiquitous devices add a multitude of features to a mobile phone, including a web browser, camera, media player, GPS unit, and energy-dense battery.
- Nano-packaged drugs: Synthetic nanostructures such as liposomes can deliver medication directly to diseased cells, avoiding damage to healthy tissues.
- Gold nanoparticles: Uniquely useful, nano-size particles of gold have applications ranging from inexpensive pregnancy tests to pathogen-killing treatments.
These and countless other developments are made possible by new techniques that operate at an inconceivably tiny scale. The nanoworld has now become a workshop for chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers as they collaborate to create a flood of innovations that are defining 21st-century technology.
Two prominent specialists team up to explore this exciting new frontier in Introduction to Nanotechnology: The New Science of Small. In 24 accessible and visually rich half-hour lectures, you get an in-depth explanation of nanotechnology and how it is possible to work in a domain that is nine orders of magnitude smaller than humans—comparable to the difference in scale between you and the sun.
Your guides are Professors Ted Sargent and Shana Kelley of the University of Toronto. One is an electrical engineer, the other a biochemist. Both are dynamic researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs at the forefront of this amazing interdisciplinary effort.
Into the Nanoworld
Professor Sargent begins the course with a series of lectures that orient you to the nanoscale and then cover some of the most significant developments in electronics that have made use of nanotechnology in computers, communications, and imaging.
Then Professor Kelley delivers a sequence of lectures on her specialty: the biological applications of nanotechnology, especially to medicine. Since the biology of life happens at the nanoscale—in proteins and DNA—research in this area holds great promise for new diagnostic techniques and treatments.
The two professors combine for a lecture on their respective research teams, giving a fascinating glimpse of the collaboration between scientists and engineers as they probe and create the nanoworld. Professor Sargent follows with a look at the beautiful and distinctive shapes revealed at the nanoscale, as well as a sustained investigation of developments that are transforming the way we produce, store, and use energy. The course concludes with each professor giving a lecture on more futuristic examples of nanotechnology, from biologically based nanorobots to smart dust and invisibility cloaks.
Stranger than Fiction
If some of the ideas of nanotechnology sound familiar, that is because science fiction has paved the way. The 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage depicted a submarine and crew shrunk to miniature size and then sent on a life-saving mission through the bloodstream of a comatose patient. Similarly, the Star Trek series featured a small-scale technological marvel called the tricorder, which, among its other functions, could diagnose any disease.
While so far these devices are fictional, aspects of them are now in the works, along with other incredible developments that you learn about in Introduction to Nanotechnology:
- Nanosurgery: Nanotweezers and nanolasers can target individual cells or even the substructures within cells, bringing elements of Fantastic Voyage to the practice of surgery.
- Chip-based medicine: Professor Kelley's lab has pioneered nanosensors for cancer diagnosis that are real-life forerunners of Star Trek's tricorder.
- Cloak of invisibility: A plot device in Harry Potter is becoming achievable with nanotechnology, which shows a way of cloaking certain wavelengths of light to render an object invisible.
- Artificial photosynthesis: Inspired by plants, researchers are exploring different nanosolutions to energy's holy grail—the production of fuel from sunlight in ways that equal or better what plants achieve.
Virus-built batteries: Nanotechnology includes developments that are even stranger than fiction. One is a microbattery constructed with the help of a genetically modified virus.
A Surprisingly Visual Experience
Amazingly, scientists can see into the nanoworld by using special instruments that rely on the wave properties of electrons or the force fields of atoms to reveal details more than a thousand times smaller than the resolving power of the most powerful optical microscopes.
Professors Sargent and Kelley tour many of the sights in this now-accessible realm, including the atoms in a superlattice, carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, nanopillars, and other synthetic constructions. But did you know that medieval stained glass windows are also a nano-phenomenon? Although the artisans a thousand years ago didn't realize it, the color effects they achieved by grinding finer and finer metal powders for pigments relied on resonance effects at the nanoscale. The same principle underlies plasmonics, a new technique for manipulating light as it bounces between atoms.
Or did you know that the patterns and colors on butterfly wings are another nanoeffect? As you discover in Lecture 23, small changes in nanostructures on the insect's wings cause light to reflect different colors. And in the same lecture, you learn how single-celled diatoms are the ultimate nanoengineers, creating beautifully complex and functional shapes. One of the goals of researchers is to use these tiny creatures to build structures with special properties, effectively employing diatoms as on-site workers in the nanoworld.
Prepare for the Future
Nanotechnology is today's most powerful engine of innovation, turning cutting-edge research into applications at an astonishing rate. Professors Sargent and Kelley are unusually well qualified to describe every step in this process; both have founded successful companies that bring nanotechnology to the marketplace. Both have been named "top innovators" by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's prestigious Technology Review.
As smartphones get smarter, computers get faster, medical care gets better targeted, new materials with surprising properties appear, and the promise of unlimited clean energy seems within reach, the importance of nanotechnology in our lives will only increase. Introduction to Nanotechnology is your unrivaled guide to how we got here and where we're going. Professors Sargent and Kelley encourage you to be informed and stay tuned. It's going to be an exciting ride.