About five years ago, I read the book The Diamond Age. This was my first introduction to the concept of “nanotechnology”, and, I must confess, that I paid it scant attention. There being complicating factors in my life at the time (having just lost my beloved step-father to cancer), I accepted the work of fiction as a distraction from the world around me, letting the wonders of that world exist solely in that world, and not making time to consider to what level, if any, such technology might exist in the real world. Nor did I put any thought into just how small “nano” might be.
Today’s mail brought me the latest issue of Elements Magazine. which focuses upon nanogeoscience, with articles on the history of our understanding of the nano scale and how technology is being applied to study things that small, of the changes in behaviour of minerals and elements at the nano scale (16% of a 10 nm cube’s atoms are near the surface of the cube, which can have profound effects upon the way that cube participates in chemical reactions when compared to a 10 μm or even 10 mm cube), and more.
But how small is a nano particle? “Nano” as a prefix in the metric scale means 10-9, so 1 nm is 1000 times smaller than a micrometer (μm), which is 1000 times smaller than a millimeter (mm), which is a thousand times smaller than a meter (m). The example given in the article to help us understand what this really means was to compare our planet, Earth, to a standard light-bulb. Apparently Earth is about as much larger than a light-bulb as the light-bulb is larger than a single nanometer.
One of my favorite “toys”, I’ve been privileged to play with as part of my PhD research is the electron microprobe, which lets me see some amazing detail in the crystals in my rock samples. With this tool I may analyze the composition of minerals which are (so I thought) quite small—so long as they are at least 10 μm wide I can be reasonably confidant of analyzing that mineral and not the neighbouring ones. Other scientists out there are using different technology to look at things so much smaller than my tiny minerals that the scale bars in some of the photos accompanying the articles are only 20 nm long.
I have heard it said that any technology which is sufficiently advanced appears to be magic to those who do not understand it. When I read that work of fiction all those years ago, I accepted the descriptions of the “nanotechnology” as the “magic” inherent to that world, and thought nothing more about it. Reading the articles today which tie the concepts of nanotechnology with the geosciences and the minerals with which I’m interacting on a daily basis somehow brings it home to me in ways that I wasn’t ready to think about five years ago. You can bet that I shall be paying attention the next time I encounter the concept, be it in fiction, on line, or even in the local newspaper.