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Nanotechnology — Think really small

Advancements could bring big changes to everyday life

Published: Monday, Nov. 10 2003 12:00 a.m. MST

Photo Illustration/Deseret Morning News

He admires the sunset through a self-cleaned window, enjoying the crimson hue. Moments later, he'll obscure it all by switching on interior lights printed on paper, the better to read the information being remotely downloaded to his "newspaper."

But for now, warmed by solar cells masquerading as shingles, he's relishing life, now that cancer-killing atoms have rid him of that disease. He can't wait for the sunrise and another day of life as a spry 100-year-old, ready to battle some 120-year-olds in a game of tennis — with self-cleaning tennis balls, of course.

That's a scenario that could be reality in a few years, thanks to nanotechnology — tech that involves making, altering or using things on a molecular scale. It's as if scientists really are heeding Steve Martin's 1970s comic line "Let's get small!" But the resulting changes could be huge.

"Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that will affect virtually every industry," predicts Jack Uldrich.

Uldrich, co-author of "The Next Big Thing is Really Small," recently told a crowd gathered for Nano Utah 2003 that some predictions call for nanotechnology to change people's lives more in the next 25 years than was witnessed in the past century.

"Now, think about that," Uldrich said. "A hundred years ago, when the Wright brothers first flew, there were only 144 miles of paved road, only 8,000 cars in the country, 25 percent of the population worked on farms, only 6 percent had a high school education and life expectancy was 47. We have seen sweeping changes in the last 100 years, and now what they're saying is we're going to see a comparable amount of change in the next generation."

Uldrich's glimpse into the future is best undertaken with, at the very least, a microscope. Making things smaller, to the molecular level, often changes the properties of a material.

So someday people might be able to store data equal to the entire contents of the Library of Congress on a device the size of a sugar cube. Stain-resistant khakis are already on the market, but self-cleaning windows, toilets, tiles and auto components may not be far behind. Military uniforms might change color, or work to cool warm warriors and warm cold ones. Shingles or wallpaper might serve as solar or fuel cells.

But the biggest changes ahead may lie in biotechnology, which Uldrich expects to merge with nanotechnology.

He predicts that nanotechnology will work to reverse the aging process through better treatment or the elimination of cancer and/or diabetes or the use of better, longer-lasting, safer devices in the body.

"We're understanding the human body so much better, and as we do so we're going to be able to treat so many different diseases better, quicker, faster, at the nano scale," Uldrich said.

The first step will be diagnostics. Getting results of blood tests now often take days and is relatively costly. But a New York company is developing a device "costing a couple of dollars" that will be able to check blood or saliva. The company will be able to test for "literally, hundreds of thousands of diseases, and you're going to get the results instantaneously and it will be more accurate and a whole lot cheaper than anything today," Uldrich said.

Treatment will rely on the concept that nanotechnology, because it involves something so very small, is on a scale that will be recognized by human cells and "welcomed into the body," he said.

With that barrier out of the way, so-called "smart cancer bombs," consisting of a single atom of materials, could be shoved into individual cancer cells and heated with infrared light to kill the cell.

"Today, chemotherapy, which poisons the body and kills good and bad cells, is on its way out," he said. "The future is, let's just find the bad actors, the individual cancer cells, early on and kill them before that cancer can even begin to grow."

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