Science's new big idea means thinking small
THE size of a toddler’s fingernail, the tiny engine measures just 6mm by 4mm and its creators believe it will replace batteries to become the primary power source for most of our everyday gadgets.
For although it’s mind-boggling to imagine, this engine is 372 times more powerful than a standard AA battery and has been hailed as one of the most significant technological developments in decades, which could revolutionise the power industry.
"The impact on society is fundamental because we’re talking about a micro-power system," says mechanical engineer Dr Kyle Jiang, who headed the team of experts behind the micro-engine. "We think this is the technology of the future."
But critics of such miniature technology, including Prince Charles, fear such microscopic developments carry the potential to unleash irreversible havoc on the world as we know it. And while the world marvels at this tiny engine, which will no doubt be displaced in years to come by a nano-engine a fraction of the size, future generations will wonder how we got by without them.
But just what do these minuscule technologies hold for the future? And will nanotechnology, which involves the manipulation of atoms and molecules, be our saviour or our destroyer?
According to Dr Jiang, the potential for smaller and smaller technologies is enormous. "Micro and nanotechnology combined together have huge implications for medical use. If you put a micro-engine in a pacemaker, it will last much longer and it will be much lighter, so it will be much better."
The implications, he says, are endless. As well as medicine, the environment could also benefit. "When you produce batteries, the pollution is a huge problem because you use chemicals," he explains. "It takes 2000 times more energy to manufacture a battery than the battery dispenses. These micro-engines will be much more energy efficient than standard batteries. If we use hydrogen, the waste of that combustion would be water so that wouldn’t produce any pollution."
But while microtechnology is obviously explained by its name - what exactly is nanotechnology?
"Nanotechnology can best be considered as a ‘catch-all’ description of activities at the level of atoms and molecules that have applications in the real world," says Otillia Saxl, chief executive of the Stirling-based Institute of Nanotechnology. "A nanometre is a billionth of a metre - about one 80,000th of the diameter of a human hair. Nanotechnology is just another way of saying advanced technology.
"Nanotechnologists are not looking to create millions of tiny things; they’re looking at how to create larger things that work even better - better telephones, better televisions, better diagnostic techniques, better medicines, better medical implants.
"The applications are immense and it has major implications for sustainability. If you need less resource because something is smaller then it’s more environmentally friendly. You can also produce things that can test the environment - dipsticks to check there aren’t toxins in your water or to make sure you’re not breathing in unpleasant pollutants."
She says it is not just the technology of the future, but also for the present. "Nanotechnology is already here," she says. "Without nanotechnology, you wouldn’t have CDs, you wouldn’t have inkjet printers. Some of the way drugs are delivered straight through skin depend on nano-scale science and technology. End products, such as stain-resistant ‘nanotrousers’, are already in the shops."
The car industry is also embracing the technology, with BMW and Mercedes first to introduce it. "They are adopting microtechnology that has nano-scale features," she says. "The next generation of cars coming on the market have micro-sensors with nano-scale features that can sense if a crash is imminent and can tell your tyre pressure and so on. You can even have colour-changing paints in your car."
Meanwhile, a team at Strathclyde University is currently developing intelligent packaging, which will be able to tell the consumer how fresh a packet of meat or a pint of milk is due to nano-particles which change colour if there has been any oxidation of the food inside the packaging.
With such immense promise then, you would imagine everyone would be in favour of a science the potential of which appears boundless. But Prince Charles is less than sold, having warned of the potentially catastrophic effects of nanotechnology, which conspiracy theorists claim aims to create microscopic, self-replicating robots.
The infinite self-copying of such nano-robots, he fears, could cover the earth in what has been dubbed a "grey goo". In the 1980s Eric Drexler, the scientist and futurologist, predicted that miniature robots capable of thinking and breeding would one day devour the earth, leaving behind them a trail of this grey goo.
Indeed, so concerned was the prince after reading a report that spelt out its "enormous environmental and social risks" that he wrote to the Royal Society expressing his concerns and organised a meeting of leading scientists to discuss its potential consequences.
But Professor Anthony Walton, an expert in microelectronics at Edinburgh University, dismisses the grey goo theory as "science fiction".
Nanotechnology has been in chemistry, he says, since the 19th century, when carbon black, containing nano-particles, was developed.
"Nanotechnology isn’t little robots running around; it’s a whole spectrum of small engineering which is already present in pharameuticals, cosmetics, silicon chips, stroke therapy and countless other fields," he says.
The criticisms, says Saxl, are really down to ignorance. "Nanotechnology can create better medical implants. Within a few years, pacemakers and other medical devices will begin corresponding electronically with hospitals, physicians and even insurance companies about the patients whom they ‘inhabit’. Many aspects of our behaviour will be monitored more closely, and we may even get insurance discounts if we agree to ‘show’ what healthy people we are!"
She admits, though, that the idea of combining biological and mechanical entities is possible through nanotechnology which does raise ethical issues.
"Nanotechnology could deliver a world in which very small machines literally circulate within us, pursuing bad bacteria and dissolving cholesterol. It sounds great, some people might think it’s a little bit spooky, but it is still a long way away."
Dr Vasileios Koutsos, lecturer in nanotechnology, nanomechanics and nanomanipulation at Edinburgh University, denounces the scaremongerers. "Every technology can be abused but that’s no reason not to develop it for its beneficial potential," he says.
"One of the long-term objectives of nanotechnology is to make things from their individual molecular components. If you can make things from single atoms and single molecules then it will have minimal environmental impact - you will use exactly what you need and you won’t have a lot of byproducts and the whole manufacture will be much more efficient.
"Batteries have huge environmental impact and generate a lot of contamination. If you can replace batteries with something more efficient and more environmentally friendly, there will be far less waste.
"The criticism comes because people don’t know what nanotechnology is and they are afraid of the unknown. I have heard that we are going to flood the world with self-replicating robots but this is ridiculous. It sounds more like a conspiracy theory than anything else.
"I think nanotechnology will have a huge impact. If somebody makes a programmable biological chip and you glue it on your body and this chip can be used in order to make a full diagnosis of your health, can measure your blood pressure and can recommend which medicines are best for you, that’s an enormous breakthrough. It will help doctors to prescribe the correct medication immediately and will improve our health services.
"Every technological revolution has taken decades to develop and mature. With nanotechnology, innovations are happening but full commercialisation may take some time."
If nanotechnology can make things both better and cheaper, it will have massive commercial potential. "Nanotechnology has immense promise, but faces fantastic challenges," says Saxl.
"Chemists have been working at the nano-scale - the atomic and molecular level - for more than 100 years but now we’re able to look down a microscope and see and control what we’re doing. Nanotechnology is a way to create materials that are better for aerospace or automotives or your work surface in your kitchen or self-cleaning windows.
"New materials underpin 70 per cent of gross domestic product in developed countries. If you can make better materials through nano-scale science and technology, can you imagine the implication that has for the economy?"
AS for the micro-engine prototype, which took Dr Jiang and his team of physicists, material scientists and engineers just over a year to develop, while its commercial potential is phenomenal, it will not hit the shelves for another seven years.
"We are head-to-head with America," he smiles. "Massachusetts Institute of Technology is developing a micro-turbine engine; we are developing a micro-internal combustion engine. But you cannot put a turbine engine into a mobile phone, because it creates a flame. Our micro-engine is more practical. We like to compare this kind of invention to the invention of the original steam engine. It marked the beginning of the industrial revolution; the micro-engine could herald a new technological revolution."
The question, according to Saxl, is not whether nanotechnology is good or bad, but whether we "should spend taxpayers’ money on clot-breaking machines to extend the average life span, or work to build other artificial devices much smaller - and more effective - than the artificial heart of the 1970s? It is a difficult decision but one that only our generation can make.
"But as we prioritise about things like hunger, our status as a global power and the future of medicine, many of the most troubling decisions will be very, very small."
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