Few fields are more science fiction than nanotechnology ! Well, that would be space research in that case, an area the nanotech guru Eric Drexler has also been involved in (in the 1970’s with space colony famed Gerard K O’Neill). Drexler is for instance known for his 1986 landmark book Engines of Creation, which popularise the field and introduced many of its concepts.
The 16th of April he was main speaker during the annual Nanoforum conference in Stockholm, organised by the business association Swednanotech and hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences.
In 1986 Eric Drexler speculated about self-replicating nano machines – which if they went wild could destroy the Earth, turning everything into “grey goo”… Existing nanotech of today is more mundane and is applied in areas like new materials, energy, medicine and electronics. Drexler, during his speech, pointed to that breakthroughs aren’t very far away. One idea is to program DNA to create molecular structures. 3D-printers with atomic precision should be possible in the future. He showed slides and animations of nano size gears, couplings and machines – virtually everything in ordinary mechanics can be reproduced in atomic or molecular scale.
Nanotech is also very useful in micro electronics. Today’s lithographic technology is close to its theoretical limits, but nano methods could push beyond that. But of course, the most common nanotech application today is new materials. Building extremely strong materials with “bucky tubes”, creating surfaces with new properties (including the Nobel Prize winning graphene) creating more efficient solar cells. In medicine nano methods can create tailor-made drug coatings or help directing drugs to certain cells or areas with pinpoint accuracy.
Drexler noted that production of nano materials/devices in theory should be very cheap since atoms and chemical manipulations work extremely fast. When (or if ?) nanotech methods are perfected costs would be just a few dollars per kilogram of nano material.
A concrete example of what nanotech could do is that it, according to Drexler, could be used to take care of any excess CO2 in the atmosphere, in case you’re worried that old Terra would turn into a Finnish sauna.
There were several other speakers during the whole day Nanoforum 2015 conference, which also included a small exhibition from nanotech companies, but Eric Drexler was by far the most visionary one. Swedish companies and research seems to be more than ready to embrace our atomic scale future.
However, there are voices of criticism.
Some doubt the technical feasability of some of the advances ideas, but in the general debate we also see environmentalists and similar groups claiming that nano materials may be harmful for the environment and human health. There were questions about such things during the Q & A session.
While we should study potential risks (“grey goo” is more science fiction, though) we should remember that while all new technology could have risks, without taking the risks (and reducing them) we couldn’t rip the benefits of it.
The day ended with presenting the awards for the Swedish Nanotech Company of the year, one prize awarded by a jury, another decided by the conference delegates through electronic voting. The company Exeger won big, and received both these awards. They have developed new efficient solar cells with nanotechnology.
An interesting day about small things with a big future.
http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/swednanotech/pressreleases/haer-aer-foeretagen-som-slaass-om-titeln-aarets-nanofoeretag-2015-1138146 (in Swedish, press release about nominees for Swedish Nano Company of the Year)
http://www.exeger.com/2015-nano-company-of-the-year/ (about the Swedish Nano Company of the Year)
Ahrvid Engholm is a swedish author, editor, journalist and SF fan.