ExO - May 16, 2016

Origins of Nanotechnology

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Most historians credit the concept of nanotechnology to physicist Richard Feynman and his 1959 speech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom."

In his speech, Feynman imagined a day when machines could be miniaturized and huge amounts of information could be encoded in miniscule spaces, paving the way for disruptive technological developments.

But it was K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book, "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology," which really put the idea on the map.

Drexler posited the idea of self-replicating nanomachines: machines that build other machines.

Because these machines are also programmable, they can then be directed to build not only more of themselves, but also more of whatever else you'd like.

And because this building takes place on an atomic scale, these nanobots can pull apart any kind of material (soil, water, air, you name it), atom by atom, and construct, well, just about anything.

Drexler painted the picture of a world where the entire Library of Congress could fit on a chip the size of a sugar cube and where environmental scrubbers could clear pollutants from the air.

But before we explore the possibilities of nanotechnology, let's break down the basics.

What Does "Nanotechnology" Actually Mean?

Nanotechnology is the science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.

Essentially, it's manipulating and controlling materials at the atomic and molecular level.

To give you perspective, here's how to visualize a nanometer:

  • The ratio of the Earth to a child’s marble is roughly the ratio of a meter to a nanometer.
  • It is a million times smaller than the length of an ant.
  • A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
  • A red blood cell is about 7,000-8,000 nanometers in diameter.
  • A strand of DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter.

A nanorobot, then, is a machine that can build and manipulate things precisely at an atomic level. Imagine a robot that can pluck, pick and place atoms like a kid plays with LEGO bricks, able to build anything from basic atomic building blocks… C, N, H, O, P, Fe, Ni, and so on… ​ While some people dismiss the future of nanorobots as science fiction, you should realize that each of us is alive today because of countless nanobots operating within each of our trillions of cells. We give them biological names like a "ribosome," but they are essentially machines programmed with a function like 'read messenger RNA to create a specific protein.'

That being said, it's important to distinguish between "wet" or "biological" nanotech, which basically uses DNA and the machinery of life to create unique structures made of proteins or DNA (as a building material) and a more Drexlerian Nanotech which involved building an "assembler," or a machine that can 3D print with atoms at a nanoscale and effectively create any structure that is thermodynamically stable.

This is an area I am fascinated by and passionate about, and given how powerful it is for our future, it's something I track closely.

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