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."

Even entire organs possibly will be able to be regrown to replace damaged or diseased ones. "It sounds like science fiction, but the way it's going to happen is at the nano scale," Uldrich said.

Utah's prime opportunity in nanotechnology is in the health-care field, because the state has strong universities; an understanding state government; the Huntsman Cancer Institute; the Wasatch Front Consortium; and private businesses that already have made headway in medical, pharmaceutical and genetic fields, he said.

"The opportunity is for all of those institutions, or for government, the educational institutions and the private sector, to begin working together and figuring out where the opportunities are, where are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, what is our niche and how do we move forward in that area," he said.

But the profound changes prompted by nanotechnology may not come easily. Small thinking by big businesses whose well-being faces potential disruption may cause big trouble with "little" science.

For example, a company that makes its dough by selling diabetes or heart-disease control products stands to lose both profits and jobs.

"I think a lot of the battles will be fought out in the public policy environment," Uldrich said. "There will be a lot of companies who currently are making good money and employing a lot of people in good-paying jobs that will deliberately try to slow down the transition.

"It's going to make a lot of people really uneasy. I think there will be a tendency for corporations to try to slow down and prepare for the transition. And I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing. I think that's something for society to figure out.

"Some people are going to be laid off, but at the same time there will be better treatments available. There will be clean, sustainable energy, so should we still be relying on coal and nuclear? It's a fascinating area. . . . The technology will exist, but how it gets into society is going to be where the real battle takes place."

Even something as basic as longer life expectancy will have broad-ranging consequences, he said.

"I know there are a lot of people in the room right now, whenever I'm talking about life expectancy of over 100 or even 120, most people say, 'Well, I don't want to live that long.' But in the future, living to 120 isn't going to be like living to 120 today. Your bones are going to be stronger. Your mental facilities are going to be more acute. You may feel like you're only 70," Uldrich said.

"Everything from Medicare, to Social Security, to education, to retirement — all of those will have to be relooked at. There are huge, complicated issues."

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Panelists discussing Utah's opportunities and obstacles regarding nanotechnology repeatedly informed college students in the audience that they will be the ones needing to think big about nanotechnology.

"We've got some real serious problems to solve, and it's going to take some major breakthroughs. . . . We need to get you excited about this, because if we don't, our future is going to be grim and so is yours," said Robert Summers, professor of electronic engineering technology at Weber State University.

"We need to dream. Anything you can think of is within the realm of possibility. Half the creative effort is coming up with the thought."


E-MAIL: bwallace@desnews.com