Review – Mike Fay – Nanotechnology: Hype, Fear, and Reality

When we think of nanotechnology, most of us think of microscopic robots that work together in swarms. The optimists among us expect medicinal uses, with tiny medical robots that will repair damaged tissue and fight disease, while the pessimists expect weaponised nanites that can eat the Eiffel Tower (like in ‘GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra’) or turn us into mindless cyborg zombies (like in ‘Star Trek’). Dr. Mike Fay of the University of Nottingham was here to dispel both our worst fears and perhaps some of our fondest hopes regarding this extremely modern and hip area of scientific research in his talk, ‘Nanotechnology: Hype, Fear, and Reality’.

While “nano” has come to mean anything small and has been pounced upon by technological giants like Apple as a marketing tool, the reality is rather different. As we learnt from Dr. Fay, “nano-” is a prefix that denotes units at a factor of one billionth (a nanometre, for instance, is one billionth of a metre), and “nanotechnology” refers to the things that we humans can build and use at such extreme microscopic scales. Fascinatingly, contrary to the popular belief that nanotechnology is a modern invention, Dr. Fay showed us that it actually goes back much further than we realise. He showed us the example of a Roman glass that was forged with gold particles, leading to the unexpected but extremely cool phenomenon of the glass having a red hue when held up to a light. The Romans had no way of knowing why this was so, only that, by forging the glass that way, it simply worked. It is only more recently that he have learnt that, because gold particles are so tiny, they have a wavelength that puts them at the red end of the visible light spectrum, rather than at yellow further up the scale, where we would expect them to be with our experience of macroscopic solid gold, with it’s yellow colour. Moreover, soot from burning coal and diesel oil is also a form of nano particles that we have a long history with. Of course, research and understanding of nanotechnology is much more recent, and Dr. Fay suggested going with Richard Feinman’s claim that an area of research begins at the point where you can see and measure it, placing the dawn of nanotech research around the time of the first electron microscopes powerful enough to see individual molecules, such as the ever popular Bucky ball and carbon nanotubes.

While this has very real applications, as Dr Fay went on to describe, he made it very clear in his talk that many of the ideas that futurists have about nanotechnology are simply unfeasible. For example, building a space elevator out of carbon nanotubes, while it works on paper, it doesn’t work in practice; a functional space elevator would need to be 35,800 km high and made from perfect carbon nanotubes, whereas lab efforts have so far produced about 20 cm worth of imperfect carbon nanotubes. And the idea of microscopic robots administered in the form of grey goo that can either help or harm us remains a subject purely of science fiction, not science fact.

But it wasn’t all crushing the fanciful imaginings of science fiction authors and fans. Dr. Fay did also describe some of the very real applications of nanotechnology in the real world. These include potential medicinal uses, such as highlighting tumours, as cancerous cells are less able to process and remove nano-particles than healthy cells, which would make it easier to locate tumours and target treatment and surgery more accurately. Other uses including self-cleaning materials, such as windows that require only sunlight and rain to do the job, as well as fabrics that are waterproof but can still breathe, allowing people (such as cyclists) to stay dry, but not to feel as if they’re wearing a plastic bag. There are also potential agricultural applications, such as tiny sensors that can be applied to crops to allow farmers to know when they need to be watered, ensuring that crops aren’t overwatered and reducing potential waste. It may not be as exciting as a missile-delivered green goo that eats the legs out from under the Eiffel Tower, causing it to the collapse into the River Seine, or as terrifying as microscopic robots that transform human beings into mindless cyborgs, but the uses are very real and beneficial to humanity.

Perhaps the most important take-home message of Dr. Fay’s whole talk was the role of engineers in making the transition between a scientific discover in the lab and its application in the real world. The transistor revolutionised modern technology, but it didn’t give us the internet and smart phones overnight. Decades of hard work by scientists and engineers brought us the innovations we have today and it will be the same with nanotechnology, once we have climbed back out of the trough of disillusionment. The talk was engaging and entertaining, and covered the topic so thoroughly that we struggled to think of any questions for the Q&A. Dr. Fay’s use of a slide show was also spot-on, providing visual examples of what he was talking about, helping to illustrate just what nanotechnology is. It would be safe to say that we all came away with a better understanding and appreciation of this fascinating area of modern research.