National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Nanoscience Guru Shares Large Visions of Tiny Tech's Future

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 20, 2006
 
The year Greta Garbo died of kidney failure—1990—was when Ted Sargent decided to become a nanotechnologist. He fantasized about rebuilding the dreamy actress from the atom up.

Sixteen years later the now-32-year-old Sargent is being touted as the "Stephen Hawking of the nano world," referring to the field of science that deals with the very small.

Creating another Garbo may still be on his to-do list, but so far Sargent's research breakthroughs have been anything but tiny.

The University of Toronto professor has invented an optical switch that could make the Internet a hundred times faster than it is today and developed spray-on solar-power cells that may one day run our cars and homes.

National Geographic News spoke with Sargent, whose new book is called The Dance of Molecules: How Technology Is Changing Our Lives, about the promise that nanoscience holds, from curing cancer to breaking our dependency on oil for energy.

Many people only have a vague notion of what nanotechnology means. What do you tell them?

I call it engineering new things with the smallest little Lego blocks that we can get our hands on. It turns out that these building blocks—atoms and molecules—don't follow the same rules as those that you can physically pick up with your hands. As a result, the opportunity to create new functions becomes greatly enhanced, because it's like we have a whole new and very rich landscape in which to design materials.

It's not just about scale, you're really emulating nature.

It's stunning what nature can do and what we can't do. The most dramatic thing, to me, is how nature builds at so many length scales. Nature builds with atoms … then builds very simple molecules, and from those molecules builds proteins, and the proteins all collaborate together to eventually form structures inside cells, and then cells, and eventually organs, and eventually people.

Nature [builds] from the bottom up using these forces of self-organization, and that's something nanotechnology is trying to emulate. Although we use things that are small, maybe we can build things that are really big with it.

Your book details practical applications for nanotechnology, and it explores the potential for the science in three areas: health, environment, and information.

Let's start with health. How can nanotechnologies such as quantum dots help with diagnosing diseases?


Quantum dots are particles of semiconductors that are a few nanometers [billionths of a meter] in size. We can choose the color of light that they generate. In fact we can program them to produce colors that are very pure and consequently very distinctive. We can use a camera and look for a particular, pure orange color and know exactly where our quantum dots are.

That idea is central to trying to diagnose disease, and cancer is a great example, because you can see where the dots are.

So you put something on the surface of these little particles such that they will stick only to, let's say, human prostate cancer cells. This is something that has already been demonstrated in a lab. You could detect cancer at a stage when there are perhaps only a thousand cells that have gone bad. Compare that with what we do in hospitals today where you have an MRI or a CT scan, and you see tumors once they are an inch [two and a half centimeters] in size and they already have a billion [cancerous] cells.

And how could nanotechnology improve the way cancer is healed?

Targeting is the key word. What we want to do is attack the tumor and not attack the whole patient. Deliver drugs to the bad cells as opposed to every cell. And we want to target in time. Your body will respond to certain cancer drugs better if they're administered in, say, slow release over four weeks than if it's just a one-shot chemotherapy that's delivered to you in an instant and then you get your next dose two to three weeks later.

You can immediately say there will be fewer side effects to the patient as a result. But maybe the even more remarkable thing is that if you can avoid those side effects, you can also deliver many times the concentration of drugs, because you're just going after the cells that you do want to destroy.

Let's switch to the realm of energy. Give us a sense of the possibilities that solar power holds and how nanotechnology can help us tap into that.

The most important thing about solar energy is that there's enough of it. There's ten thousand times more solar power than we need for all our energy. The idea is to cover some fraction of the Earth with solar cells, and use those to convert optical power into, let's say, electricity or a kind of fuel [such as] hydrogen fuel that can be subsequently used. But we have to do that cost-effectively.

With today's flexible solar cells based on plastics, we can capture the sun's visible light, but we don't capture the invisible light. My group has developed solar cells based on paintable quantum dots, which not only capture the visible [light] but also capture the infrared photons. As a result they double the amount of power coming from the sun that we actually absorb in our solar cells compared to existing … solar material solutions.

In the area of information technology, you talk about a technological barrier that we will hit, which only nanotechnology can overcome.

The technological advancements that we have seen in recent decades are often [governed by] Moore's Law. [According to this empirical observation, the rate of technological development doubles every 18 months.] We've managed to make computer chips smaller and smaller, and crammed more in there, so the complexities of our computers have kept going up.

This advancement has been remarkable. But there are some limits that we are starting to get quite close to already. You reach a point when you can no longer guarantee that each one of your 16 million transistors on your chip actually works, and therefore potentially whether the chip itself works.

So people in the bottom-up world of nanotechnology are asking, Could we ever make a chip that did what we wanted it to do, but instead of us putting every transistor in place we built computer chips where nature organized molecules? Each molecule might function like a transistor.

You warn that nanomaterials could have negative environmental and health effects as well.

Any technology that is powerful can have downsides. We may not understand the world of atoms and molecules well enough yet to know exactly what those are going to be. We don't have complete predictive control over the properties of our materials, so toxicity is a really important area for nanotechnology research. Fortunately, there are some really outstanding people looking at exactly those questions right now, and they're doing it through experiments. It's really important to the field.

You talk about how nanotechnology is revolutionizing science by incorporating all these different fields of study—biology, chemistry, information science, engineering.

When I started doing my Ph.D. ten years ago, I never would have dreamed of how things are now. [Scientists have] become very problem-focused. What are society's big problems? Cancer, energy, communication between cultures, global interaction. We must find the tools to solve these problems, and we'll do that however it has to be done. If that means we have to learn more biology or we have to discover some new chemistry, we'll do that.

But the only way to do that is as a team of people working very closely with each other, and that's changing the way science is being done. The cultural aspects of doing work in [nanoscience] are actually some of the most revolutionary things about it.

Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.