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Nanotechnology: peeking into the future of computing and business

From energy storage, to durable devices, to a silicon chip alternative, nanotechnology could hold the key to technological innovations

For many people, nanotechnology is a word that will either be associated with science fiction, or with headline development areas like graphene or in some cases, maybe a bit of both.

But, like robotics, there's more being done in the field of nanotechnology than first meets the eye.

It is an area that is being taken so seriously in terms of its potential that governments around the world are investing billions of dollars in its research, which is to say nothing of what private organisations and investment firms might be investing.

Some see nanotech as a technological panacea, others fear its potential to cause a grey-goo apocalypse.

The truth is that, like robotics, the future of nanotechnology is almost certainly more mundane than either of these, but infinitely more practical as well.

What is nanotechnology?

Before heading down the path of what nanotech can do, both for society at large and for business, it is worth pausing a minute to consider what nanotechnology is.

Like "design" or "engineering", "nanotechnology" is a broad discipline, with many sub-disciplines within it, each of which is at different stages of development.

The Oxford English Dictionary, defines it as "the branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometres". To put this in context, a red blood cell is 2,500 nanometres in diameter.

At this size, common elements, including things like titanium and carbon, take on unusual properties that they don't have at a larger "macro" scale.

It is this change in behaviour of materials at the nano scale that makes nanotechnology such a promising and diverse field.

As Richard Smalley, who was one of three scientists jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the 1985 discovery of fullerenes, put it: "The grandest dream of nanotechnology is to be able to build with the atom as the building block.

"Nature does that when it builds complicated molecules precise to the last atom. The dream is to get to the point where we can do that ourselves."

What could we build at that scale?

Well, the science is very new the term itself was only coined in 1974 but we have already managed to fulfil part of Smalley's dream, with the 2004 development of graphene.

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