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Published in the 16-31 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Nano technology

On July 1, 2004, President Abdul Kalam called on the country’s scientists to “make a breakthrough in the cutting-edge nano technology.” A US-based Indian scientist tells us what this cutting edge techonology is all about (ed.).

Sura Yunus 61 says: “In whatever business thou mayest be and whatever portion thou mayest be reciting from the Qur'an and whatever deed ye (mankind) may be doing We are Witnesses thereof when ye are deeply engrossed therein. Nor is hidden from thy Lord (so much as) the weight of an atom on the earth or in heaven. And not the least and not the greatest of these things but are recorded in a clear Record.”

In the nineteenth century, when the Industrial Revolution spread, the world progressed so fast that people at that time thought this is the best advancement mankind has achieved. In the mid twentieth century, the use of large or main frame computers was limited due to cost and convenience. The affordable personal computers called PCs revolutionized computing and information technology. Internet technology enabled the flow of information freely to any computer connected anywhere on this earth. The cellular or mobile phone revolutionized the way we communicate to each other. Navigation technology has revolutionized driving without knowing or remembering the roads. Navigation and cellular communications are the fruit of free flow of information through satellites.

What revolution is looming on horizon for the twenty first century? The answer is NANO TECHNOLOGY. What is Nano-Technology? Let me first tell you what it’s all about. The word “nano-technology” describes anything involving dimensions of less than about 1,000 nanometers. In layman's terms, very small stuff. Back in 1959, Richard Feynman stated that there was no scientific law that would prohibit the manipulation of matter atom by atom. He offered two US$1,000 prizes—the first for anyone who could write the encyclopedia on the head of a pin, in other words shrink it by a factor of

25,000. The second for anyone who could create a 0.4mm motor. Both prizes have been claimed. For years, the science of nano-technology has progressed in relative obscurity. In 1989 IBM use 35 xenon atom to write “IBM”.

As you know, everything, including manufactured goods, is made from atoms. The properties of those goods depend on how those atoms are arranged. If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamonds. If we rearrange the atoms in sand we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air, we can make carrots.

Current manufacturing methods are the top down sort. You start with a block of iron or a sheet of fiberglass and you cut parts out and bend stuff around, add and remove it. In other words, casting, grinding, and milling. I like to think of Michelangelo's Rebellious Slave . He started with a big block of marble and cut away to reveal a statue. But next year, the year after, and the year after that, nano-technology will let us start at the bottom and build things up. Manufacturers will be able to put the building blocks of nature together inexpensively. There will be a new generation of products that are cleaner, stronger, lighter and more precise.

The Secret of Success: In Nov. 2003, US Congress voted to increase funding for nano-technology - bringing the total up to US$3.7 billion over the next four years. Europe is putting up US$915 million for nanotech. Japan paid out US$750 million in 2002. World governments are falling all over themselves to fund this type of research. The National Science Foundation estimates that there will be a US$1 trillion global market for nanotechnology in 2015. That's huge. Nano Products In Today’s Market: There are products now on the market. In chemicals, manufacturing, biotechnology, semiconductors and energy - in almost everything produced by man – nano-technology will lead to innovative new products. 80% of top executives believe that nano-technology is relevant to their specific industry. Let me give you some examples.

You've probably seen ads for Lee Performance Khakis and other clothing products. In one television commercial a guy goes to Las Vegas and gets beer, wine and nacho cheese spilled all over his pants, but there is no stain. Nothing sticks to the pants because they are made from “nano-whiskers” produced by Nano-Tex, which makes stain-resistant textiles. There is also Advanced Powder Technologies' ZinClear, a transparent sun block with more UV protection than zinc oxide. No more white stuff on your nose. There is nano-tech in the running boards of SUV's. Nissan Motors has an SUV with a nanotube-enhanced bumper (5% of the plastic) that will automatically return to its original shape after a fender-bender. It's for sale in Japan. A biotech company uses nano-tech to make insoluble drugs soluble in water. Nano-Bio makes Nano-Defend, a product that decontaminates surfaces, and Nano-Green, which does the same thing for skin. General Les Lyles, Commander of US Air Force Materiel Command, says, “Nanotechnology is going to revolutionize everything we do in the military.”

Inmat's Air D-Fense makes a product that gives Wilson's Double Core tennis balls twice the life of regular balls. The balls have a nano-clay composite layer to slow the escape of air. This product might be transferable to car tires, a multi billion dollar market . Nano-clay is lighter, thinner, cheaper and better for the environment than current products.

Again, the National Science Foundation estimates that the global market for nano-technology will be US$1 trillion by 2015. Total US GDP is US$10.4 trillion. That means we are talking 10% of the current US economy. And many people think this is an underestimation. Why, because Nano will be as big as the Internet, PC's or the automobile. Just imagine computers smaller than tip of your finger, or the contents of the Library of U. S. Congress stored in something smaller than a marble. Or how about materials 100 times stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight? Or medical robots that hunt down cancer, tumors or blocked arteries? Or bio-engineered tissues to replace damaged or diseased body parts? 

Let us all pray to Allah t’ala to bless us with all the knowledge . . . . say, “O my Lord! Advance me In knowledge” (20:114).

M Shafi Lokhandwala

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