Sept. 27, 2011 --
In the popular "Deus Ex" video game series, nanotechnology can turn an average government agent into a bionic superman. In fact, nanotech augmentations in the human body aren't just fun and games. Real-life applications will most likely become reality a lot sooner than you think. In 2007, the world's first online inventory of nanotech products, Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, found that nearly 500 products, including food, clothing and cosmetics, employed nanotechnology. In this slide show, explore how nanotech can make you stronger, tap into your brain and more.
WATCH: NANOTECH REWARDS
If you're too busy to make it to the gym, nanotechnology could be a way to get fit without having to spend hours toiling away on machines. In fact, technology can take you a lot further than any free-weight or cardio regimen. In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas reported in the journal Science that they had created alcohol- and hydrogen-fueled artificial muscles 100 times stronger and capable of 100 times more work than natural muscles. Functioning as both muscles and fuel cells, the technology has a range of applications from artificial limbs to autonomous robots.
SCIENCE CHANNEL: Take the Nanotechnology Quiz
If nanotechnology can make you stronger, could it also make you smarter? Scientists aren't quite there yet, but nanotechnology applied to brain implants could treat a range of conditions from deafness to blindness to Parkinson's disease and more, according to biomedical engineers from the University of Michigan. Nanotechnology could also be used to tap into the mind, and read and write information directly into the brain. In an unusual twist, the research was undertaken by telecommunications engineers at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.
University of Washington
Contact lenses with visual displays may seem like the kind of technology you only see in a movie. But researchers at the University of Washington have started laying the groundwork by building a contact lens with internal circuitry. Using wires made of metal only a few nanometers thick, the technology is placed in a contact lens rather than an implant, making use of the bionic eye much easier. In this photo, the contact lens has been affixed to a rabbit. The researchers believe they would quickly be able to introduce a visual display, but it wouldn't be more than a few pixels in the near future.
Tired of having to find an electrical outlet or a USB cable every time you need to charge your cell phone? With nanotechnology, you can become a walking battery. Using nanowires to recover wasted heat energy from the body, which is then converted into electrical power, researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley have developed an entirely means of charging personal electronics. The same technology could be used to convert heat from other sources into electrical energy. As reported in the journal Nature, approximately 15 trillion watts of heat energy produced by engine and steam- and gas-powered turbines is lost to the environment.
Recovering from injuries to skin and muscle tissue can take weeks. Trauma to the brain or central nervous system can be irreversible. But with nanomedicine, a nanoparticle-infused hydrogel could heal brain and bone injuries by creating new blood vessels and encouraging stem cells to replace dead tissue. Developed by scientists from Clemson University, the gel still needs several more years of animal testing before human trials can begin. Injuries involving nerve damage or the spinal cord are among the most difficult to treat. But nanotechnology could open the door to rebuilding damaged nerve cells. Although regenerating nerve cells is the ultimate goal, researchers have so far been able to develop the scaffolding necessary to rebuild nerves following damage. The technique, a nanotechnology-infused stem cell treatment developed by David Nisbet of Monash University, could also aid in the treatment of Parkinson's disease.
Besides treating immediate injury, researchers are also exploring uses of nanotechnology to fight the effects of aging and to promote longer life. By using a breakthrough nanogel to stimulate stem cells, Northwestern University scientists found that they can regenerate lost cartilage in joints. As adults age, they start to lose their cartilege, a painful condition for which there is little effective treatment. A separate study undertaken by researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) found that using an industrial nanomaterial, they can triple or even quadruple the lives of brain cells. This could lead people "live longer and with fewer age-related health problems," according to a UCF press release about the study.
With more than an estimated 1.5 million new cancer patients this year alone, it's no surprise that one of the more promising applications of nanotechnology is in the detection, monitoring and treatment of various forms of cancer. From targeted drug delivery to direct attacks of "nanoworms" on tumor growths, researchers working within the field of nanomedicine are using the technology to attack cancer cells with unprecedented precision.
WATCH: NANOTECH RISKS
Move over cultured pearls: Scientists have successfully grown liquid crystal flowers with grains of sand. These structures resemble insect eyes and could be used as complex lenses.
The researchers working on new nanotech dream of a day when all the complex, tiny parts can just manufacture themselves. Getting that to actually happen is called directed assembly, and a team from the University of Pennsylvania recently made a sweet step forward.
In the past they’d tried creating nanoscale structures using microposts that acted like a trellis to direct growth, according to a university press release. This time, they used silica beads, which are basically polished grains of sand, planted in a pool of transparent liquid crystal. This time they generated patterns of petal-shaped bumps that look like flowers. Each transparent petal can function as a lens.
Physics and astronomy professor Randall Kamien, who worked on the flowers, told Gizmag’s Lakshmi Sandhana that the process was similar to making rock candy, where a stick or string acts like a seed for sugar to make crystals naturally. ”We have just done this on a smaller scale,” Kamien said, “making smaller bits of ordered material cued by smaller elements, like our silica beads.”
The research was led by a team that included Kamien, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Kathleen Stebe, professor of materials science, engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering Shu Yang, as well as lead author, grad student Daniel Beller. They published their work in the journal Physical Review X (abstract).
You might be wondering what the big deal is about growing a bunch of tiny lenses. It might not be as wearable as cultured pearls or as edible as rock candy, but Gizmag’s Sandhana pointed out that the technique could make producing complex dragonfly-like eyes containing millions of spherical lenses easier, faster and cheaper to achieve.
Picture being able to grow compound lenses that could cover a whole surface, lenses that can heal themselves, or even biosensors that could use the lenses to collect information. All that is a long way off but the scientists did tell Gizmag they think their lenses will go into liquid crystal displays within the next decade.
Professor Shu Yang also suggested that their lens construction could be incorporated into futuristic metamaterials such as an acoustically invisible cloak. Given how far we are from a real invisibility cloak, I think we’re more likely to see a prosthetic eye with nearly X-ray capabilities first, similar to Mad-Eye Moody’s in the Harry Potter series. Heck, we’ve already got Google Glass.
Image: A magnification showing the liquid crystal “flower” with a silica bead at the center that generated the pattern. Credit: University of Pennsylvania