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Nanocomputing: When Will It Happen?

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If you're old enough to remember the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, you were probably more impressed with a miniaturized Raquel Welch than with the idea of making technical tools small enough to work at the atomic level. Richard Murch discusses why nanotechnology is so appealing, and why we still don't have it.

Nanocomputers have the potential to revolutionize the 21st century in the same way that the transistor and the Internet led to the information age. Increased investments in nanotechnology could lead to breakthroughs such as molecular computers. Billions of very small and very fast (but cheap) computers networked together can fundamentally change the face of modern IT computing in corporations that today are using mighty mainframes and servers. This miniaturization will also spawn a whole series of consumer-based computing products: computer clothes, smart furniture, and access to the Internet that's a thousand times faster than today's fastest technology.

The Potential for Nanotechnology

Contrary to popular belief, the marriage of chemistry, computing, and microscopic engineering known as nanotechnology is not a new phenomenon; scientists have been working on the possibilities for decades. Nanotechnology today is an emerging set of tools, techniques, and unique applications involving the structure and composition of materials on a nanoscale—that is, billionths of a meter. This research has the potential to usher in a golden era of self-replicating machinery and self-assembling consumer goods made from cheap raw atoms. The following list presents just a few of the potential applications of nanotechnology:

  • Expansion of mass-storage electronics to huge multi-terabit memory capacity, increasing by a thousand fold the memory storage per unit. Recently, IBM's research scientists announced a technique for transforming iron and a dash of platinum into the magnetic equivalent of gold: a nanoparticle that can hold a magnetic charge for as long as 10 years. This breakthrough could radically transform the computer disk-drive industry.

  • Making materials and products from the bottom up; that is, by building them from individual atoms and molecules. Bottom-up manufacturing should require fewer materials and pollute less.

  • Developing materials that are 10 times stronger than steel, but a fraction of the weight, for making all kinds of land, sea, air, and space vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient. Such nanomaterials are already being produced and integrated into products today.

  • Improving the computing speed and efficiency of transistors and memory chips by factors of millions, making today's chips seem as slow as the dinosaur. Nanocomputers will eventually be very cheap and widespread. Supercomputers will be about the size of a sugar cube.

  • Using gene and drug delivery to detect diseased cells; nanoagents will target organs in the human body, providing molecular repair and cell surgery.

  • Removing the finest contaminants from water and air to promote a cleaner environment and potable water.

Many other applications will be recognized or identified over time.

TIP

Despite the concept having been around for a long time, the technical aspects of nanotechnology are new enough to require a specialized vocabulary. See the "Nanoterminology" section at the end of this article for a brief review of some of the words that are already becoming commonplace.

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