Nano-Dreams: Speculations on Nanobots

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy.  Since we have only scratched the surface of the potential of nanotechnology, the possibilities are almost endless, and there are many questions to be answered and new ideas to be generated and realized in this area.  In another blog entry I discussed the concept of self-assembly, and how that will enable nanobots to be manufactured in sufficient quantities for use.  How might nanobots be stored, for example, as well as how will they obtain energy to carry out their invisible missions?  How will nanobots be controlled so they will do the jobs they were designed to do when we want?  How might nanobots be used or stored in fabrics or fluids?  How will nanobots be disposed of once their job is done?How might nanobots be stored? Can nanobots be stored in bags, bins, or even embedded in a sheet of paper?  The way in which nanobots are stored could be an important part of how and where they are applied.  Depending on their design, and because of their extremely small size, means of storage would need to be carefully chosen.  Containers would need to be made from substances that would not hold onto nanobots, either through static charge, adhesion, or other forces, or some of the nanobots would be lost every time they were moved between containers.  Given the quantities in which nanobots would be made, however, a certain amount of loss in shipping could be acceptable.  Could nanobots be stored in a solution, suspended in water or another fluid?  I have written in the past about the possibility of nanobots or nanotechnology applications being painted on surfaces, and incorporation in solids or liquids may be a method of choice due to the difficulty of managing such tiny objects.

Nanobots could provide sophisticated cleaning capabilities when combined with paper or fabrics. Can nanobots be designed to be activated by the presence of a chemical agent such as water or alcohol?  Imagine a paper towel that contains nanobots programmed to find and kill bacteria once activated by moisture.  Imagine a paper towel containing nanobots that activate on contact with petroleum and break up the long hydrocarbon molecules into less toxic and more manageable substances.  Could there be a liquid containing nanobots in suspension that would activate when put in contact with the long chain molecules in plasticizers and other toxic chemicals, and then could the nanobots break them into less toxic molecules?

How would nanobots be powered? This is one of the most important problems facing nanotechnology developers.  Would nanobots have finite lives based on a self-contained power source, or could they be designed to find energy sources locally and go on doing their jobs for extended periods? Could they be designed to derive power from the breakdown of chemicals included in their construction?  Could they obtain power from temperature differences, electromagnetic fields, or light or other electromagnetic radiation?  Unless nanobots can fly, their range as far as seeking out energy sources or performing other functions would be extremely limited.

Would nanobots wear out? Given that many functions would be essentially mechanical, nanobots could wear out or otherwise suffer degradation or damage from their working environment.  The function they carry out could degrade their structure, or it could be one-time and self-destructive. Exposure to ultraviolet rays or ozone could damage or disable them depending on their makeup.  In a large scale production scenario nanobots might be made in quantities requiring 55 gallon drums or 100,000 gallon tanks, and relatively small losses of nanobots would not be an immediate problem.

Handling characteristics, longevity, and other factors would be factors in the overall risks presented by nano-devices.  Any risks associated with handling or being exposed to a particular type of nanobot would depend in some part on the details of its design and composition, but would also depend on its size and weight – how easily it becomes airborne and how long it takes to settle out of the air, for example.

A nanobot application in clothing and personal hygiene:  Clothing with embedded nanobots designed to kill the bacteria that produce body odor might not be a healthy thing for the wearer, but if they instead broke down the molecules that we smell without harming the bacteria, it would have the same result and potentially be safer for the wearer.  How long such nanobots could perform their duties will be a factor, though.  Unless they can find energy sources in their environment, and unless they are stable enough to continue to function for at least a couple of years, such applications will be hard to justify.  Still, perhaps nanobots could be included in fabric freshening products such as dryer sheets so that clothing could be re-impregnated with nanobots after washing.

Could nanobot applications in chemistry assist in the pursuit of sustainable energy sources?  If nanobots can be used to alter the makeup of chemicals, could they be employed to convert materials in fuel cells in ways that will increase their efficiency?  Could nanotechnology devices remove or convert impurities in liquid fuels, or permit active air filtering?

Can nanotechnology provide variably-reflective surfaces?  Can nanobots be designed to attach to a surface (be painted on, for example) and have reflective sides they can turn away from or toward the material they are attached to in response to temperature or other environmental changes?  Would that permit a surface to change from highly reflective to highly absorbent with only a signal from a near-IR or RF remote control, or automatically to regulate heat gain in the material?

And what of the disposal of nanobots?  Can they be either designed to self-destruct (disassemble or decay) into inert materials in response to a particular chemical, electromagnetic, or radiological stimulus?  Can they be designed to cling to a fabric until receiving a signal telling them to let go so they can be washed out? 

The ideas for nanotechnology applications are still a long way ahead of the science needed to create them.  Currently the most important scientific papers being published in the pursuit of nanotechnology are still focused on how to control the many minute forces nanobots must be designed to handle.  Electrostatic effects, for example, are just one of a variety of factors that could make or break a nanotechnology concept, and these create huge challenges for nanotechnology inventors and developers.  Still, their promise is so great that the research must go on, regardless of national and world economic conditions.  While there are always risks in the pursuit of new technologies, we are facing crises of overpopulation, resource shortages, and technological risks that must be addressed.  It will be very interesting to see what comes of this budding industry.  So far I only see it in the ultra-fine particles of titanium dioxide in my sunscreen, though I’m sure there is more of this technology in my life of which I am just not aware.

As always, I welcome your comments.  — Tim


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