Monday, October 09, 2006

Working with tiny things offers giant opportunities for almost everyone

Suppose you are so inspired by the article you are about to read that you decide to devote your life to nanotechnology. You go into this exciting new field and work for more than 30 years. Finally, the day comes when you retire. You look back with pride on a remarkable body of work---and everything you worked on fits inside the period at the end of this sentence.

The things that nanotechnologists work on are small--so small they're measured in nanometers, Or billionths of a meter. How small is that? Well, take a look at the model car on the next page. It's made of just one molecule, 3 to 4 nanometers across. A line of 26,000 such "nanocars" would barely stretch across a human hair.

But small doesn't mean unimportant. Just ask the U.S. government, which has poured more than $5 billion into nano research since 2001. "Because of nanotech, we will see more change in our civilization in the next 30 years than we did during all of the 20th century," says Mihail Roco of the National Science Foundation.

Secrets of the Small
Hold on. Isn't everything made of atoms and molecules? What's so special about buildingwith tiny components? What's special is that never before have we been able to control things precisely at that level. Until now, manufacturing nano products has been "like trying to make things with LEGO blocks while wearing boxing gloves," says Ralph Merkle, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "You can push the LEGO blocks into heaps, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like." Now nanotechnologists are learning to snap them together--and finding that nano stuff has surprising characteristics.

Consider the carbon atoms that make up pencil lead, for instance. Roll those same atoms into nano-size tubes and you get a material 100 times stronger than steel. Someday you might find such carbon nanotubes in bulletproof uniforms for soldiers or an elevator that ascends into space. You might find nanotubes in power lines, because they're exceptional conductors of electricity, and in hydrogen-powered cars, because they seem able to store hydrogen like a sponge.

Already you can find nanomaterials in certain products--in some sunscreens, scratch-resistant eyeglass coatings, and premium tennis rackets. But scientists are still figuring out the nanoworld. So in general, nanotechnology is still something you find in a lab. According to the National Science Foundation, however, so many companies will begin making nano things in the next 15 years that, together, they will employ 2 million people worldwide.

Getting a Nano Life
By the time you finish school, you will most likely have a broad choice of nano careers. You might, for example, design minute crystals called quantum dots, which convert sunlight into electricity, or computer chips that hold billions of transistors (the best today hold about 100 million). Have a flair for fashion? You might work with nanoclothing, now that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a nanofiber that changes color when zapped by an electric current.

How can anyone prepare for so many options? "Take math and a lot of science," advises James Tour, a professor of chemistry at Rice University in Houston. "In the past, biologists spoke a different language than physicists, who spoke a different language than chemists. The beautiful thing about nano is that it unites all of these subjects."

Following that advice might lead to a career as a research scientist with an advanced degree. But suppose your strengths lie elsewhere? According to employment experts, the field will soon have room for just about everyone. A born leader, for example, might get a business degree and oversee production teams. A detail person might work in quality control. A good arguer might become a lawyer, protecting his or her company's rights and inventions. And writers will certainly be needed to tell potential customers-and the world in general--what's going on in the field of nanotechnology. Community colleges train the experts who operate, maintain, and repair the incredibly precise equipment that controls nanomaterials.

Whatever path you take, stick with it, and you might eventually get to work on some really amazing stuff. Experts predict that by mid-century we may have nanorobots that patrol the bloodstream, fixing damaged cells. The future may hold nanocomputers made of biological molecules like DNA and even nanomachines that assemble themselves.

Does that seem unlikely? Well, how did you start off? You began as a single cell--a nanomachine--that assembled itself into a person.

Without nanotechnology, there would be no iPod. Sales of products that use nanotechnology may reach $2.6 trillion in 2014.

If a nanoparticle were the size of a soccer ball, then a chicken wound be the same size as Earth.

Source: Wellcome Trust


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