Week #9: Nanotech by Jeff Poirier

The introduction to nanotechnology in class was very interesting. I was most intrigued by the discussion of nanomaterials. Carbon nanotubes, which are essentially elemental carbon (graphite) bonded together, are highly versatile and promise amazing things as the technology advances. Currently, nanotube technology is utilized in medicine and electrical circuit fields (optics and electronics). However, the extremely strong nature of the nanotubes has provided for hypotheses that they could serve architectural purposes as well. The seemingly most outlandish of all these claims is that nanotubes are the key to the attainability of “space elevators.” In the tensional method hypothesized, carbon nanomaterials would provide the basis for the elevator’s structure. A space elevator would allow for objects to be thrust into orbit around the Earth without a rocket.

In addition to nanotubes, fullerenes fall into the category of nanomaterials. The most common of the fullerenes is buckminsterfullerene, often referred to as the Bucky Ball. Strikingly similar to the structure of a soccer ball, buckminsterfullerene is composed of 60 carbon atoms bonded in a spherical geometry. Fullerenes have been utilized in the field of medicine as carriers of antibiotics as a means to target bacteria and, in some cases, even cancer cells. They too have the potential to play a role in armor production because they are quite strong structures. Relatively recent studies into the properties of fullerenes and other nanomaterials show that, under some circumstances, such materials exhibit superconductivity of electricity.

Nanotechnology as it relates to nanomaterials is shrouded in controversy. The biological and medicinal gains of fullerenes and nanotubes are apparent, but toxicologists have expressed a fear that such molecules are actually pathogenic and should be cautioned against. Some studies have provided support for the hypothesis that nanotubes, when introduced to the body, can be toxic. However, the proposed toxicity of C60 buckminsterfullerene and other related molecules has been opposed as well.

The societal, historical, and scientific contexts that nanotechnology encompasses have inspired many artists to delve into the topic from a “right-brained” perspective. For example, our very own Victoria Vesna, often in collaboration with our guest James Gimzewski, has produced several installations and exhibitions concerning nanotechnology and nanomaterials. In her work “Inner Cell,” feature Bucky ball projections in an interactive and responsive environment. In this forum, the participants of the installation had the opportunity to learn and experience nanotech through the manipulation and visualization of their surroundings. In a similar style, the work “Nanomandala” allows for the interaction of individuals with their environment with an emphasis on nanotechnology. Clearly, the wonders, mysteries and controversies of nanotech have inspired an artistic inquiry into the future of the science.

Nanotechnology is an emerging field that influences medicine, industry, and imagination. The amazing potentials of nanomaterials evidenced by the advances of carbon nanotubes and fullerenes are exciting and frightening at the same time. The potential toxicity of nanomaterials that have already been put to use in biological settings is a manifestation of the fearful nature of this new technology. Such successes and fears have inspired the sciences and arts alike to emphasize the societal and humanitarian possibilities associated with nanotechnology.

Here is a sophisticated video about nanotech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFoC-uxRqCg

-Jeff Poirier

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