Nanotechnology-enhanced surfaces could bring amazing capabilities. Nanotechnology research has moved well into the area of creating molecular coatings that, for instance, resist letting dirt or water adhere to them. Self-assembling molecular coatings appear to be in commercial development and production by more than one company. What might come next, though? Since nanotechnology is at a molecular-level, and molecules have the ability to attract specific other molecules of different types based on the jigsaw puzzle-like relationship of their external shapes, couldn’t a surface coated with nanomachines be made to grab specific molecules that came close enough and either hang onto them or pass them, bucket brigade style, to their neighbors, possibly in a specific direction?
Molecules grabbing onto other specific types of molecules nearby is how current self-assembling molecule technology works. I imagine this is similar to the way that a coating of nickel is needed on an aluminum alloy wheel before chrome will stick to it (at least, I think that’s how that works). Next they may be able to assemble more complex multi-layered structures in which the first layer will hold to the target surface and provide a grabbing point for another layer, and this can be repeated to create many layers and achieve a wide variety of functions. Thicker layers could provide more protection for the target surface, but could also attach molecules that would provide specific reactivity to elements in adjacent fluids using pores in the surface, such that molecules of different sizes would reach into the surface to different depths, where they could react with different specifically-chosen substances. This could have great implications for extremely sophisticated chemical processing or cleansing of fluids and gases.
Mechanical nanotechnology could take the functionality of surfaces to a whole new level. Incorporating mechanical capabilities into a nano-surface, such that specific molecules could be grabbed and released, and moved bucket brigade-fashion in specific directions, would allow filters to separate different molecules within a gas or fluid stream so that either one or more specific substances would be separated out, or perhaps multiple substances could be filtered out in different directions. It might also allow for a surface that would move objects of different types in different directions, though the surface would be horizontal, as if the surface sloped one way for objects of one type and a different direction for objects of another type. The implications for the movement of materials are amazing.
Nanotechnology-enhanced material movement could save a lot of energy. If nanotechnology surfaces could take the energy they need from chemical or electromagnetic fields, and use nano-scale machines or the inherent characteristics of molecules to move objects, it might be much more efficient than our current ways of moving things, and reduce energy costs significantly in a wide variety of applications.
Current developments suggest a healthy stream of future innovations. Surfaces might be made to react in different ways depending on what came in contact with them, opening up an amazing array of applications. A surface, as a sensor, could be used in medical diagnosis via the sensing of chemicals present in the skin. Your steering wheel could work like a breathalyzer and prevent you from driving if you had had too much to drink. Your refrigerator door handle might know if you were hungry when you opened it. The ring on your doctor’s hand (I know, doctors, or at least my doctors, don’t wear jewelry) could tell if you had a fever when you shook her or his hand. The possibilities are incredible, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface (pun intended).
It’s a big, exciting, and amazingly tiny world out there, and we’re only getting started. What creative ideas do you have? Letting people know about them could be a helpful step to seeing big improvements in our lives just a decade or two ahead. As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim
Nanotechnology paper for switchable surfaces, August 12, 2008, Michael Berger, http://www.nanowerk.com
Nanotechnology surface treatments from Nanotec, product news – Infolink.com.au, March 14, 2007, Nanotec company website
Nanotechnology: surface patterns to order, July 31, 2008, Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science
Nanotechnology Takes Off, March 27, 2007, KQED special on nanotechnology
(a quick web search will reveal SO many more interesting items!)