TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope

TECHKNOW: Pushing the envelope - NANOTECHNOLOGY

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Nanotechnology, with its promise of impossibly tiny machines that can cure cancer or build a better microchip, has captured imaginations since US physicist Richard Feynman coined the term 40-plus years ago. But till recently the closest we got to nanotech was films like Innerspace, the 1987 sci-fi yarn in which a microscopic Dennis Quaid pilots a tiny submarine around the innards of a hapless stooge.

Now small is big again. Japanese researchers at Osaka University have developed tweezers just a quarter-millimetre long, and Israeli start-up Given Imaging (GI) has produced a pill-sized camera that, when swallowed, transmits colour snapshots of its eight-hour journey through the gut direct to hospital PC screens. The device is huge in nanotechnology terms, but it's a big improvement on a 7m long endoscope and the markets are excited.

GI was the first company to float in the US after 11 September, raising dollars 60 million in the process.

THE CHALLENGE - Making very, very small things is very, very difficult. Feynman's prediction that by 2000 we'd be living in a nano-world, looking back to 1960 and wondering how we managed without it, has proved wide of the mark. Not surprising when you consider the problems involved - the work of nanotechnologists is measured in nanometres, unimaginably small millionths of millimetres. Manufacturing even a simple structure at this level is not for the ham-fisted; it involves manipulating individual atoms and molecules with electron microscopes and laser beams.

THE SOLUTION - The diminutive tweezers developed by Yoshikazu Nakayama's team at Osaka last year comprise two nanotubes made from a special form of carbon, which are opened and closed electrically. Even though they can pick up objects 500 times smaller than the width of a human hair, they are early-stage technology, the tools that could help to make the tools that could make the first nanobots.

Nanobots - robots small enough to circulate in the bloodstream, attacking tumours from within and delivering drugs to very specific sites - are the great goals of nanotech. The respirocyte, pet concept of US researcher Robert Freitas, is an example. This is an artificial red blood cell that could transfer oxygen from the lungs to tissues and muscles so efficiently that a diver would be able to breathe for four hours under water without inhaling and a sprinter could run flat out for 12 minutes without taking a breath. But Freitas admits it will be at least 10 or 20 years before he is able to make one, never mind the millions required to treat just a single person. Until then, we'll have to make do with looking at pictures of our insides transmitted live and uncut, thanks to GI's pill camera. And getting Innerspace out on video again.

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