Nanotechnology’s Future

11th August 2006

Mihail Roco, senior advisor for the nanotechnology to the National Science Foundation and a key architect of the National Nanotechnology Initiative–penned a piece in Scientific American this week. The article gives a roadmap for nano technology — which provides a good context for projecting the future of desalination research.

Today nanotechnology is still in a formative phase–not unlike the condition of computer science in the 1960s or biotechnology in the 1980s. Yet it is maturing rapidly.

Over the next couple of decades, nanotech will evolve through four overlapping stages of industrial prototyping and early commercialization. The first one, which began after 2000, involves the development of passive nanostructures: materials with steady structures and functions, often used as parts of a product. These can be as modest as the particles of zinc oxide in sunscreens, but they can also be reinforcing fibers in new composites or carbon nanotube wires in ultraminiaturized electronics.

The second stage, which began in 2005, focuses on active nanostructures that change their size, shape, conductivity or other properties during use. New drug-delivery particles could release therapeutic molecules in the body only after they reached their targeted diseased tissues. Electronic components such as transistors and amplifiers with adaptive functions could be reduced to single, complex molecules.

Starting around 2010, workers will cultivate expertise with systems of nanostructures, directing large numbers of intricate components to specified ends. One application could involve the guided self-assembly of nanoelectronic components into three-dimensional circuits and whole devices. Medicine could employ such systems to improve the tissue compatibility of implants, or to create scaffolds for tissue regeneration, or perhaps even to build artificial organs.

After 2015-2020, the field will expand to include molecular nanosystems–heterogeneous networks in which molecules and supramolecular structures serve as distinct devices. The proteins inside cells work together this way, but whereas biological systems are water-based and markedly temperature-sensitive, these molecular nanosystems will be able to operate in a far wider range of environments and should be much faster. Computers and robots could be reduced to extraordinarily small sizes. Medical applications might be as ambitious as new types of genetic therapies and antiaging treatments. New interfaces linking people directly to electronics could change telecommunications.

Over time, therefore, nanotechnology should benefit every industrial sector and health care field. It should also help the environment through more efficient use of resources and better methods of pollution control.

Its always helpful to glance over at doings in energy research. There, the sense of both urgency and opportunity is palpable. This week MIT announced their version of the Manhattan Project.

Scientists at MIT are undertaking a big, ambitious, university-wide program to develop innovative energy tech under the auspices of the university’s Energy Research Council.

“The urgent challenge of our time (is) clean, affordable energy to power the world,” said MIT President Susan Hockfield.

Inaugurated last year, the project is likened by Hockfield to MIT’s contribution to radar — a key technology that helped win World War II.

David Jhirad, a former deputy assistant secretary of energy and current VP for science and research at the World Resources Institute, said no other institution or government anywhere has taken on such an intensive, creative, broad-based, and wide-ranging energy research initiative.

“MIT is stepping into a vacuum, because there is no policy, vision or leadership at the top of our nation,” he said.

Mr. Jhirad may be overstating his case. Certainly I would hope and trust that the same thing could not be said of water desalination research.