Tiny machines with massive potential
In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman first discussed the possibility of tiny machines that could carry vast amounts of information. In the 1980s, K. Eric Drexler took the idea further in a book that heralded the coming age of nanotechnology – and with it, nanorobotics. With many nanobots still in the research and development stages, it’s difficult to predict how disruptive they will be however, it’s is certain they will open up new markets and their impact will be huge.
This field concerns machines so tiny they are almost impossible to comprehend. Put in context, a nanobot can be less than one thousandth of the width of a human hair. Even so, academic institutions are already carrying out tests that have returned very interesting results. Which industries have and will continue to be impacted by nanobots, and what is the disruptive potential of this tiny technology?
Perhaps the most obvious beneficiary of nanomachines is the healthcare sector. Imagine the power of being able to precisely treat the human body from within? This is exactly what nanobots, injected into the body via nanorockets, could do. At Durham University, nanobots have been put to task in the fight against cancer. When activated by light, the nanobot starts to rotate rapidly – so fast, in fact, that it can drill into cancerous cells and destroy them in one minute. The miraculous nanodrill is currently under testing on microorganisms, with the aim of eventual human trials. Other applications include collecting biometric measurements to track a patient’s condition, or simply to monitor general health. They could also deliver medication to incredibly specific areas of the body, and internally repair diseased or damaged tissue.
Oil and Gas
Renewables may be coming to the fore, but humanity still relies heavily on fossil fuels. As reservoirs run dry, it’s becoming harder to find supplies. Nanotechnology, however, has been readily adopted by the industry to study and improve extraction processes. As oil reserves are emulsions of oil, gas and water that create nanoscale particles, nanorobots present a useful monitoring aid. They can be injected into reservoirs to provide real time insights about recovery levels, and could also be sent into the depths of geologic foundations to identify untapped oil. As well as searching for oil, the miniscule machines may also help to clean up oil spills – a serious environmental issue that vastly impacts the natural world.
Once there are no more fossil fuels to extract, energy providers will have no choice but to look to sustainable options. Luckily, nanotechnology can help. A study conducted by Stanford University has shown that solar cells made of silicon nanowires are twice as effective at absorbing solar energy than traditional options. With the help of nanobots, these materials could become even more efficient as their properties are carefully edited by insight driven nanomachines. Even liquids could be doped with nanobots to boost the amount of energy absorbed from light, gathering metrics about the levels attained.
Nanobots can pull apart materials atom by atom, but they can also build things too. Using a DNA based molecular platform, researchers at the Technical University of Munich have developed a 25-nanometre long nanorobotic arm that can extend to 400 nanometres. In other words, they have created a nanocrane. The crane can be rotated using an electrical charge, which means that it could potentially manipulate other molecules too. According to the university’s research paper, the crane could be used in photonic and plasmonic experiments. The former is the study of light, and the latter examines the interactions between electrons and electromagnetic fields within metals. Cranes, however, belong to the world of construction. The availability of molecular tools could transform the construction industry by making it incredibly precise – enabling, for example, smart systems to be integrated into structures and managed by a team of nanobot builders.
Nanoparticles can fold, grow, join together, assemble themselves, and disassemble themselves. Nanobots are essentially molecular manual labourers operating in nanofactories, manipulating other nanoparticles to achieve a specific goal. So far, researchers have created tiny motors, the fastest of which can reach speeds of 18,000 revolutions… The same as a jet engine. Where there are motors, there is mobility. Last year, a nanocar race took place at the Centre for Materials Elaboration and Structural Studies in Toulouse. Interestingly, the nanocars were propelled by electrons instead of motors. Nanobots are also impacting manufacturing by fuelling advances in Materials Science. Manipulating materials at their core and equipping them with new properties will lead to more opportunities for manufacturers to enhance products and processes.
They’ve been a long time coming, but the nanobots are now here. By revolutionising manufacturing alone, nanorobotics will become part of our everyday lives in the products and services that we use. Nanobots could also be fundamental in facilitating a sustainable future through efficient energy solutions, as well as enabling the growth of the Internet of Things by making – and monitoring – smart systems and objects. The benefits for healthcare are staggering, offering a precise method to treat illnesses and track general health. But at the same time, there is something unnerving about the idea of having tiny machines inside our bodies. Will the use of nanorobotics in medicine make us all cyborgs, for example? What data will these bots collect, and what will it be used for? One thing’s for certain – nanorobots will keep Moore’s seemingly immortal Law ticking over nicely.