Mighty Morfin’ Airplanes: Nanotechnology Explained (sort of)

“I am endeavoring, ma’am, to construct a mnemonic circuit using stone knives and bearskins.”
Mr. Spock on Star Trek

In the mid `90s, sages like MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte told us to think about bits instead of atoms. Atoms were unwieldy hard goods.”stuff” like steel and rock. You needed forklifts to move them. Bits were nimble little song and dance men that two-stepped around The Internet and recombined as everything from airline bookings to Britney Spears videos.

Bits lived up to most of their promises, even though the results were often unintended and unwanted. Bits provided a clever new metaphor for academics and snake oil salesmen alike, greased the skids of commerce, pumped gas into an economic bubble and globalized knowledge and terror.

Bits, in themselves, were simple minded. They had one decision to make, on or off: noble, actually, in this age of moral ambiguity, and ward politics at its best. Cajole enough of these pixel fairies to vote on a picture of a cat and you got a digital cat. Not a cat to warm your feet at night but a flat, phosphorescent facsimile.

Here Comes the Atoms Family
Nanotechnology is the craft of manipulating matter to build REAL stuff on the atomic level. The term is, however, being stretched to accommodate bigger things such as some of the larger MEMs (microelectromechanical devices) that are already appearing. Take a look a gallery of photos of a spider mite strolling around a gear chain at Sandia National Labs in the US.

The real itsy bitsies could be atoms behaving, in many cases, in the same way as bits: ganging up to become more powerful, replicating themselves, spreading wonder and viruses, creeping into places unnoticed. Atoms, like bits, have no code of ethics. This new material world promises both pain and pleasure. According to Eric Drexler, who coined the term nanotechnology, “This is a technology which can reasonably be described as extreme in all directions: extreme upsides, extreme downsides.”

    Buckytubes & Mighty Morfin’ Airplanes
In the travel industry, whose business it is to move stuff (including people) nanotech will have huge implications more quickly than you can imagine.

You may have already heard about some new miracle fibers, but hold on. Last week, MIT got a grant from the US Army to create nanomaterials that can not only block out biological weapons but heal soldiers who get exposed. Mention buckminsterfullerines (buckyballs) or buckytubes and you may roll your eyes (What ever happened to geodesic dome)? But these microscopic carbon-based cylinders may form the basis of aircraft skins as light as aluminum but hundreds of times stronger than steel. Buckytubes are already in manufacture. Researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center say that airplane wings made of this sort of nanostuff will be able to change shape with changes in air pressure and temperature. Aircraft will be more efficient and able to adjust for maneuvers such as low speed takeoffs and landings. Morphing to a parachute would be nice.

Nanocommerce & Those Pesky Ants
Within the next five years, Boeing expects to integrate nano sensors into airplane parts to alert parts VENDORS of potential failures. Lifesaving, yes, but also commercial. Alien Technologies of Morgan Hill, California makes tiny radio frequency chips that can be fused into the fabric of everything from socks to airline tickets. (Think of it, orphan socks could find each other). Retailers are experimenting with face scans combined with radio pings from these tiny chips. Enter a store and your identity, what you wear, what you buy, your previous purchases, buying patterns, credit score, the fact that you like stinky cheeses, will all come together as the real, digital you. On a trip, it will not just be your ticket number matched with your luggage, everything that is normally bar-coded will be chipped and talking to everything else at the airport, official and commercial. I believe that it is inevitable that this will often happen without our knowledge or consent. “Stuff” will be the terminals of the new Internet. If you catch me running around screaming about “voices,” they may be coming from my mismatched socks.

Designer drugs, corn and cats are already a reality to those who play with DNA. Scientists are working on pill that adds mechanics to biology that would swim around the body looking for bad shrimp, reaming out arteries, diagnosing illnesses and fabricating drugs on the fly. They could also take the form of the happy little scrubbing bubbles in detergent ads, sailing with the tides through the oceans and rivers, monitoring pollution and gobbling it up as it finds it.

Water and air (the Pentagon is drooling over “smart dust”) may not be the limit. One nanotech website has suggested that large public works and transportation projects could be aided by little digger machines that would be programmed to work like ants. Throw a bunch of these little buggers in a hole and watch them tunnel their way to the other side of the earth (what if they get there and are still hungry)? Far fetched? Last week researchers at UCLA announced that they have combined organic molecules and tiny pieces of metal to produce motors capable of moving things dozens of times larger than the device itself. Some of these machines would self-assemble. Why do I think of the “I Love Lucy” episode (a classic comedy in the US) where a conveyor belt goes wild in a factory and poor Lucy can’t get control. Actually, this sort of self-assembly is common in biology and is quite beautiful when it takes the form of a seashell. Done right, this could open up a new era of environmentally friendly manufacturing which could eliminate polluting and toxic manufacturing processes.

It doesn’t take the imagination of an Arthur C. Clarke to list the potential nightmares these new technologies pose.from total loss of privacy to weapons that make anthrax spores seem like baby powder. Eric Drexler’s Foresight Institute has developed a series of guidelines for keeping these gizmos from getting out of hand which include making devices that are dependent on broadcast transmissions for replication, routing the control signals around the devices in such ways that that cannot function independently (forming little terror cells) and programming termination dates into them.

I am not making this up.

The Next Big Thing?
Forget biotech. Nanotechnology is the Wild West. It is not government regulated so extensively and is transforming the materials that make up our “stuff” rapidly. Capitalism is running ahead of regulation, as it did with The Internet, but don’t go running to your stockbroker quite yet. Big, established, household name companies in Asia, the US and Europe, have already embraced nanotechnology and while some analysts say R&D is within the reach of small companies, manufacturing is expensive and the materials business has always been sort of a dog to Wall Streeters. Even so, some well-known names in the dot com world of venture capital and PR are salivating about nanotech’s potential as The Next Big Thing. A trade organization called the NanoBusiness Alliance was formed last December. Its honorary chairman is a re-emerged former US Congressman Newt Gingrich who, if you recall, resigned after becoming the first Speaker in the 200+ year history of the the House of Representatives to be fined and reprimanded for ethical wrongdoing.

Why am I intrigued? Why am I excited? Why am I scared?

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