Back to the future with nano technology

In 1966, 20th Century Fox released a movie called Fantastic Voyage. It was a cold war saga about a Soviet Union scientist who had discovered how to miniaturise matter by shrinking individual atoms. While US scientists had managed to harness the process for an hour, the Soviet scientist knew how to do it permanently. However, as he defected to the west the Soviet scientist is shot causing a blood clot making him comatose. The premise of the whole film was that four scientists/doctors could be shrunk to an atomic level to go and fix the blood clot.

Fast forward to 2017 and some of this technology is not as far-fetched as once seemed. While shrinking humans is still in the realms of science fiction, nano technology is coming along in leaps and bounds.

Within the next couple of decades, robots, computers and a whole plethora of devices might be able to be made to sub-microscopic size, which will take both humanity and industry to a whole new level.

The idea of such miniaturisation of products came to the fore in 1959 when prominent US theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, gave a lecture titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Feynman theorised about the nano scale and range of possible applications, including whether it was possible to publish the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin. He not only imagined this new field, but also how it could lead to a variety of outcomes in a huge range of industries. It turns out that a lot of what he wrote in the paper is coming to fruition.

Those who work on nano technology are at pains to point out that nano doesn’t mean it is possible to shrink devices like in the movie – rather it’s taking the fundamental components of matter and putting them together in beneficial ways. For example, moving carbon molecules around at the atomic level can make products stronger.

In the case of something like battery storage, this doesn’t entail making a small battery, instead it encompasses manipulating atoms at a nano level to improve the function of the battery and increase its storage capacity, which is a pressing industry need that can be addressed by nano technology. This will be necessary because the storage requirements in the future are going to be huge due to the amount of data that is going to be generated, not only by classic but also by new quantum computers.

As the government-sponsored National Nanotechnology Initiative states, nano manufacturing involves scaled-up, reliable, and cost-effective manufacturing of nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. It also includes research, development, and integration of top-down processes and increasingly complex bottom-up or self-assembly processes.

At the forefront of Australia’s push into the market is The University of Sydney Nano Institute. Sydney Nano is one of the University’s multidisciplinary research initiatives. It is charged with bringing together outstanding research teams and capabilities from a diverse range of disciplines to discover and harness research at the nano scale. Professor Susan Pond is the Director of Sydney Nano. Her resume is impressive and includes being Chair of the New South Wales Smart Sensing Network, Chair of the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology Advisory Board, Director of Biotron Limited, Vectus Biosystems Limited and the Wound Innovation Management CRC and member of the Expert Working Group of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE). Throw in awards like the Member of the Order of Australia, Doctor of Medicine honoris causa from the University of Queensland and the Centenary Medal and it’s not hard to see why she was asked to head the Institute.

“It’s all about how matter operates at a billionth of a metre,” said Pond. Down at this level of individual atoms and dimensions that are 100,000 times thinner than a human hair, matter behaves strangely indeed, obeying the non-intuitive laws of quantum mechanics. For decades these were seen as oddities or even a nuisance. Now they are opening up a new technological age.”

“Sydney Nano has great strength in the fields of quantum science, nanophotonics and nanomaterials. It is developing new areas, nanorobotic surgery being one of them,” she said.

“We asked surgeons the same question posed by Richard Feynman in 1959, ‘what could you do in your clinical practice that you can’t do now, if you could miniaturise yourself with your intelligence and the sensors you use, and your surgical skills?’ We have collected a formidable set of clinical indications for nano robots. Now we need to develop the technology roadmaps to take us from what we can achieve now – which is to deploy fairly passive, nano particles – through to giving surgeons control of semi-autonomous robots.”

In the manufacturing sector, and peripherally the process and control arena, nano manufacturing is becoming increasingly important and competitive.

“Nano technology has already entered all areas of modern manufacturing to fabricate materials such as nano particles, nano composites, nano lubricants, coatings and fibres. These materials have a number of valuable attributes including being lighter, stronger, more durable, water-repellent, anti-reflective, self-cleaning, ultraviolet- or infrared-resistant or antimicrobial,” said Pond. “Products in the multibillion dollar nano technology market are found in the sporting, clothing, electronics, printing, biotechnology, medical device sectors to name but a few.”

But what about the cost? Making things out of atoms sounds like an expensive enterprise. Surely putting devices together at that microscopic level cannot be a cheap exercise? Yes and no, said Pond.

“Whereas research at the nano scale is expensive, nano manufacturing is not necessarily so, especially if the facilities enable continuous production,” said Pond.

As mentioned in previous examples, it is in the health sector where nano technology will have a big impact. The number of ways it could help is huge and includes having a microscopic surveillance robot in the vascular system that could report back to doctors on the state of coronary arteries. Then there is how it could change the face of transplant organ recipients when it comes to how anti-rejection drugs can be targeted and dispensed.
“If you have a child with a kidney transplant, the graft rejects because of the immune response to anastomoses, which are in the host and donor’s kidneys,” said Pond. “They are one millimetre in diameter – very small. If that immune system is set up, the only treatment at the moment is systemic, whereby the whole body receives the anti-inflammatory medications. The rest of the body just has to put up with it.

“The idea would be that you would have a nano robot that would be sitting at the site of an anastomosis, or could be sent to the site of the anastomosis, and pick up what is going on and deliver the drug directly without needing to expose the rest of the body to the toxicity of the treatments. So we can see what those applications are, but they are a long way off.”
And what happened to Feynman’s idea of putting the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of pin? In 2012, 53 years after Feynman made his prediction, Harvard researchers managed to put a 53,000-word book on a strand of synthetic DNA. Science fiction is slowly closing the gap on science fact.

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