Fears and Promises of Nanotech by Eric Bollens

Nanotechnology inspires optimism in some and fear in others. Some call it a buzz, but in reality it spells hope for a lot of fields, from medicine to energy to information and digital technology. It generates fear because the unknown often does, and, in this case, loosing containment on such technology could have drastic effects. From the molecular level on down to the quantum level, nanotechnology has profound implications.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN epitomizes the duality of optimism and fear in nanotechnology. Accelerating atomic particles to near-luminal velocities, the collider allows for insight into the earliest moments of the universe that only become visible when extremely large amounts of energy coalesce in a very small area. The collider is a pinnacle of scientific achievement, over eighteen years in the workings, and without nanotechnology, the collisions could neither be generated nor measured. The collider, however, is also a subject of great controversy, centered on the fear that the collisions could result in the formation of microsingularities. Some have responded that Hawking radiation will cause the singularities to evaporate before they come into play beyond the quantum scale. The CERN safety review and the American Physical Society agree but take a different stance, finding that there will simply not be enough energy in the collisions to trigger any such microsingularities. This discrepancy can cause a great deal of fear.

Uncertainty exists in much of nanotechnology, hence the resistance. Dendrimers and nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) could help with targeted drug release, actively attacking cancer cells without harming normal cells, but fear exists that these nanoparticles might take on a purpose of their own, creating new pathogens. At UCLA, protests have occurred at the California Nano-Science Institute (CNSI) about this research. Like with the LHC, fear of containment and control also reigns with medical nanotechnology. Michael Chricton explored this in Prey, where a networked, agent-based nanorobotic system took on group consciousness and exceeded its initial purview.

While these fears have some justification, caution should allow researches to continue pressing forward in the realm of nanotechnology because of the huge potential it offers. Modern light bulbs only convert about five percent of electrical energy into light. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs), already in limited use, and quantum-caged atoms (QCAs) could increase electrical efficiency in lighting and projection tenfold, helping reduce energy consumption as the demand skyrockets. While potentially decreasing energy demand, nanotechnology also spells hope for increasing the efficiency of energy production. Specific catalysts could be designed with maximized surface area for greater efficiency in internal combustion engines which currently have only around a 30% conversion efficiency. Similarly, nanostructures could allow for tighter continuum of bandgaps in photovoltaic cells, theoretically more than doubling efficiency in solar cells which currently convert only around 15% luminal energy into usable energy. As opposed to the controversial nanotech fields of medicine and theoretical physics, advances in energy consumption and production do not suffer from the same fears of loosing containment or control.

Personally, I work in the High Performance Computing Systems and Networking group at UCLA, which runs parallel computing clusters in the Math-Science Data Center and the Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE) Data Center in CNSI, and I’m very interested in what nanotechnology offers for computing. In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore stated that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit increases exponentially, doubling every two years. This trend has remained fairly steady over the past forty-four years, but now scientists are beginning to come up against a wall: “In terms of size [of transistor] you can see that we’re approaching the size of atoms which is a fundamental barrier, but it’ll be two or three generations before we get that far—but that’s as far out as we’ve ever been able to see,” stated Moore in 2005 interview. Eventually, processors will reach the point where transistors can go no smaller, and distance separating processing units becomes great enough that there is no new gain by adding more transistors. Many major research projects rely on parallel processing to get around this issue, distributing the load across multiple nodes; parallel processing is contingent on communication speed between nodes, though, and fiber-optic electron nanotubes offer possible gains here. However, eventually this too will hit a bottleneck, no matter how much efficiency can be pushed through the fiber.

The answer to the roadblock to computing power that is coming soon, and one of the great targets of nanotechnology: quantum computing. Taking advantage of phenomena that exist at the sub-atomic level, whereas bits in computing provide a linear increase in power, qubits in quantum computing will provide an exponential increase in power through quantum superposition. Many obstacles, however, exist to this. Decoherence at the quantum level is hard to protect against because of the minutiae of scale. The transformation gateways necessary to perform operations on the qubits represent another challenge. However, in the last few years, major advances have been made to overcome these obstacles and make quantum computing possible. Twenty-some qubit systems now exist, including a the first marketable system by D-Wave, which equates to a mid-1990’s digital computer in terms of performance. However, to give an idea of the power of quantum computing, at 300 qubits, a system has a state described by approximately 1090 complex numbers, more than the total number of atoms in the observable universe.

While there is much resistance to nanotechnology, there is also a great deal of promise offered by it in all fields of science.

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