Nanotechnology: machines on the molecular scale

“How small can you make machinery?” physicist Richard Feynman challenged the scientific community in 1984, according to “Wall Street Daily.”

Feynman had conceived the concept of nanotechnology twenty-five years earlier, but he had to wait for technology to catch up before research could begin developing miniscule machinery. However, in recent years, scientists from multiple disciplines have achieved success with developing microscopic machines to perform tasks on the molecular scale.

So what is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is “science, engineering and technology conducted on the nanoscale,” Feynmen said. The nanoscale to which Feynman refers is between one and one hundred nanometers. To provide a frame of reference, the average human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter.

On October 5, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to three modern pioneers in nanotechnology: Jean-Pierre Sauvage, J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa. These three men contributed to nanoscience through constructing a motor, car, elevator, muscle and computer chip, all on the nanoscale. These molecular creations open the door for enhanced materials, sensors and energy-storage systems. “Smart materials — materials that you can change the properties, the size or their interactions with other things when you shine light on them,” said Sara Snogerup Linse, a chairwoman of the National Committee for Chemistry.

“We are opening a new molecular era here with this prize,” Linse said to “The New York Times” after the Nobel Prize award ceremony. The sky’s the limit for the potential uses of nanotechnology, and researchers across the globe are exploring the possibilities of nanotechnology in a vast range of fields, including biomechanics, engineering, computer science and physics.

James Tours, an organic chemist at Rice University in Texas, produces molecular cars with “four wheels, four axles and a chasse,” Tours told “Houston Chronicle.” “You shine light on them, and the motor starts spinning,” Tours said. These molecular cars can enter cells, travel over cells, or even drill holes into cell lining. Tours’ research includes nanoelectronics in computers, nanomachinery such as the molecular cars and green carbon technology to enhance environmentally friendly gas and oil extraction processes.

Chemists at A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore have begun development on nanotechnology to improve oil spill cleanup and water purification. Chemist Huaqiang Zeng designed nanomolecules that convert crude oil into a brown jelly within a few minutes, which can easily be scooped off surface water, Zeng told Phys.org. Zeng and other researchers at IBN also use nanomolecules to separate small water molecules from larger charged molecules, such as salt or toxic metals.

“Exactly what will come in the future, we can only guess,” Linse said.