Something Very Small Could Soon be Very BIG

By Carl Weiss

Everyone is always looking for the “Next BIG Thing.”  That’s a given.  But what most people don’t realize is one of the biggest things of all could soon have its origin in the very small.  What I’m talking about is the rapidly rising realm of nanotechnology.  While the term has been around for a few decades, the emergence of Nanotech onto the world stage has, to date been more of a whimper than a bang.  Well, all that is set to change soon as the very tiny makes a quantum leap onto the world stage that could have a bigger impact on your world than the birth of the microcomputer.

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The funny thing is, nanotechnology has been around almost as long as the personal computer.  The first microcomputers made their presence known in the mid to late 1970’s.  Nanotech arrived in 1985 with the discovery of Fullerenes, otherwise known as Bucky Balls.  These microscopic structures, similar in structure to graphite, are composed of carbon atoms that can take on the shape of a sphere where they are called Buckminsterfullerenes, or a cylinder, otherwise known as a carbon nanotube.  While their structure seems familiar, one has to realize that in order to see them, the use of a scanning electron microscope needs to be employed.  While fullerenes do occur in nature and even in the vacuum of outer space, it is the potential uses of this super light, super strong material that spawned the Nanotech revolution.

 There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

As early as 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman postulated that it might soon be possible to manipulate individual atoms to create unique structures at the microscopic level, it wasn’t until K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, “Engines of Creation,” that Dr. Feynman’s dream of a billion tiny factories finally began to take shape.  The shape of Nanotech innovation in the 1980’s was relegated to two researchers by the name of Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer, both of whom worked at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, who arranged 35 xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. While an interesting parlor trick, the technique was nonetheless the harbinger of more exotic constructions at the molecular level. 

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The 1990’s saw the application of nanotechnology in everything from electronics and pharmaceuticals, to textiles and communications.  Still to the world at large, Nanotech was not exactly a household word.  Let’s be honest, when Moungi Bawendi at MIT devised a method for controlled synthesis of nanocrystals, otherwise known as quantum dots, he had hardly achieved the kind of rock star status that Steve Jobs and Woz did when they introduced the Apple II.  Still, Bawendi and other researcher’s progress did not go entirely unnoticed.  Slow but steady progress was being made in molecular manipulation.  New technologies, such as nanolithography were developed by 1999 that allowed the writing of electronic circuits and the manufacturing of biomaterials used in biological research.

The Presidents Pile On

In 2000, Bill Clinton gave a speech at Cal Tech where mentioned the infant Nanotech industry. "Some of our research goals may take twenty or more years to achieve, but that is precisely why there is an important role for the federal government." 

During the same speech, President Clinton also announced the founding of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), during which he pledged $500 million in government funding.  When George Bush took the helm as Commander in Chief, he signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology research and Development Act, that increased the government’s commitment to this initiative by pledging an additional $3.63 billion over 4 years.  
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No sooner had President Obama taken office, when he was introduced to nanotechnology in a big way when a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Michigan decided to immortalize the President by etching microscopic copies of Barack Obama’s likeness on a metal substrate, which went viral when the “Nanobama’s” were published online.  Nanobama’s notwithstanding, the President has continued to fund NNI to the tune of $1.5 billion in 2015. (See the video at

Where’s the Nano-Beef?

While some new uses of Nanotech saw the light of day during the first 10 years of the new millennium, including the introduction of passive nanoparticles in disinfectants and sunscreen, clothing and cosmetics, the promise of nanomachines far outstripped their reality, causing some pundits such as  David Berube to wonder what all the Nano-Hype was all about. 

According to Wikipedia, “His study concludes that much of what is sold as “nanotechnology” is in fact a recasting of straightforward materials science, which is leading to a “nanotech industry built solely on selling nanotubes, nanowires, and the like” which will “end up with a few suppliers selling low margin products in huge volumes." Further applications which require actual manipulation or arrangement of nanoscale components await further research. Though technologies branded with the term 'nano' are sometimes little related to and fall far short of the most ambitious and transformative technological goals of the sort in molecular manufacturing proposals, the term still connotes such ideas. According to Berube, there may be a danger that a "nano bubble" will form, or is forming already, from the use of the term by scientists and entrepreneurs to garner funding, regardless of interest in the transformative possibilities of more ambitious and far-sighted work.”

Up until the past few years, the naysayers had a point.  While more effective sunscreen had its place, where were the self-replicating nanobots that everyone had long awaited?  What happened to Eric Drexler and Richard Feynman’s “Engines of Creation” that could turn out nanites by the billions?  Where was the Nano-Beef?

In order for micromachines to become a reality, they needed to not only be produced, but mass produced.  Since it is impossible to shrink factory workers to scale, that meant that humans had to learn something that nature has been doing on this planet for billions of years: Self-replication.  It wasn’t until 2010, that researchers were able to manipulate individual atoms and even combine them to form structures, to date, they were unable to cause their micromachines to replicate.  Then in early 2010, geneticist J. Craig Ventner, managed to create the world’s first biological organism from scratch, when he constructed a bacterium using off-the-shelf chemicals. 

While whipping up a batch of bacteria might not seem like an earth shattering accomplishment, bear in mind that this was the first time in 4 billion years that anyone on the planet had managed to create a living creature that was not only viable, but able to reproduce.  Armed with this knowledge, it wasn’t long before other researchers applied the discovery to their own work.

Below are a couple of videos that point out some of the latest advances in nanotechnology:

Whether you realize it or not, there are already a number of products on the market that contain Nanotech elements, such as:

Artificial Atoms (Quantum Dots) 

The next few years will see these tiny things becoming bigger and bigger players, as the world as we know it is literally transformed from the inside out.  If you’d like to learn more about the coming Nanotech revolution, check out this week’s Working the Web to Win radio show, where we will explore how something very small will soon be very BIG.

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio   

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