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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Nanotechnology: Let's get small

by Mark Ollig

“Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin?”

You may think this is a recently asked question, when in fact, it was asked in 1959.

This question was proposed by Richard Feynman, a physicist, who was speaking at the American Physical Society meeting at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

In his address, he went on to describe a process scientists would conceivably someday use to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules.

It wasn’t until 1974 when the term “nanotechnology” would first be coined by Norio Taniguchi, a Tokyo science university professor, but nanotechnology, is what Feynman was accurately discussing.

So, exactly how small are we talking here?

The word “nano” means one-billionth, in scientific expressions.

In making some comparisons to understand how small a scale nanotechnology works on, yours truly went out and found a few examples.

A human hair is measured across at about 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers.

The thickness of a sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers.

The length of an inch equals 25,400,000 nanometers.

Comparatively, if a marble were the size of a nanometer, then one meter (three feet) would equal the size of the Earth.

Our fingernails grow at a rate of one nanometer every second.

Getting back to Feynman’s 1959 question; he reasoned if the head of a pin is 1/16 inch across, and we magnified it by 25,000 diameters, we would then have an area equal to the space needed to fit all the pages of the Encylopaedia Britannica onto.

He then surmised what remained was the method needed to reduce in size all the printed words in the Encyclopaedia Britannica – by a factor of 25,000.

His next question was, “How do we write small?”

Feynman admitted the technique needed was not available in 1959; however, he did attempt to explain one method which might be used.

He said the lenses of an electron microscope could be reversed so it would demagnify, instead of magnify.

A stream of electrically charged electron particles, or ions would be transmitted through this demagnification and focused on a very small location on the pin head. Feynman stated this method would be similar to how they were able to write words on a television, via a cathode-ray (vacuum tube containing an electron gun) oscilloscope.

“I am not inventing antigravity, which is possible someday, only if the laws are not what we think. I am telling you what could be done if the laws are what we think; we are not doing it simply because we haven’t yet gotten around to it,” Feynman said during his speech.

Feynman made a futuristic prediction in 1959.

He used the example of the librarian at Caltech. The librarian needs to go from one building to another in order to keep track of some 120,000 volumes of books, which he said “are stacked from the floor to the ceiling.”

Feynman said in 10 years, this information “can be kept on just one library card.”

Albeit not shrunk onto a single library card, he was accurate about how we would use technology to reduce in size large amounts of information, and place it onto a very small area.

By 1969, IBM had developed an 8-inch memory disk or “flexible disk” coated with a magnetic material; we call it a floppy disk. It had a storage capacity of 80 kilobytes, which could hold about 40 typed pages of information, after having been converted into binary code.

This led to the transference of data stored on paper punched cards to floppy disks in many companies, and, I imagine, in colleges like CalTech, as well.

It wasn’t until 1986, that IBM developed the 3-1/2-inch floppy disk (or diskette) with 1.44 megabytes of storage capacity.

Today, scientists using the latest nanomaterials and nanotechnology are improving efficiencies of many computing-related devices, including computer memory.

Substance’s like graphene and quantum dots particles, which are influenced by means of nanotechnology, are being used in extremely small computers and communication devices.

The 12th International Nanotechnology Exhibition and Conference, better known as Nanotech 2013, took place recently in Tokyo, Japan.

It is known as the world’s largest nanotech fair.

Nanotech 2013 presented cutting-edge nanotechnology and the latest in nanomaterials.

More than 1,000 exhibitors representing 600 companies, along with about 60,000 people from more than 20 countries, attended this event.

A variety of nano-related topics were covered, including healthcare and medical treatments using nanobio-technology.

Exhibits presented nanotechnologies used for creating “green renewable” products. These will be used commercially for the development of renewable raw materials for product manufacturing.

Safer green-related solvents and chemical products for commercial and home use are currently being made using nanotechnology.

Thinner, and more efficient photovoltaic cells used in solar panels, are also now created using nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is currently shaping how the smallest of nanoparticles can be re-organized and arranged into new materials and devices being used today, and in the future.

For more information, check out the National Nanotechnology Initiative website located at