Science in Science-Fiction: Nanotechnology

Posted on Sunday, December 1st, 2013 at 18:20

Last month I wrote about cyborgs and touched upon the notion of Nanotechnology (I may have used the terms Nanobots and Nanites without explaining either). So this month I thought I should talk about the Nanites…

Building big – a thing of the past?

Stonehenge in closeup from wikipedia

Doesn’t have many apps, but I love the monolithic design… image from wikipedia

The history of technology has a very interesting paradox buried at its shiny, metal heart. Early technology was all made from rock, we learned how to chip rocks and pile rocks and we got very good at throwing rocks. Rocks were our earliest tools, at least so the fossil record says. There was another branch of our early technology that was not based on silicon, this was our first carbon-based technology, the stick. For most of our history we worked on ways of using sticks and rocks in ever more inventive ways. Eventually we learned that by burning sticks (or even more strangely burning stones) to melt the right rocks and produce metal. Then things got interesting. We built bigger and bigger structures, things that went unrivalled until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We built huge. We refined our technologies, of course, there is a world of difference between the technology of our first arrowheads knapped from a piece of flint and the technology that you are reading this on, but both are in essence chips of silicon. It’s just that these days we tend to do much fiddlier engraving. In fact the latest silicon chips (which are just a flake of crystal) are not a race to build bigger, but smaller. Technologists talk of chips with circuit lines only tens of nanometres thick, where as only a few years ago they were talking about one hundred nanometres being a major threshold. Our technology as it progresses first gave us big, but now it gives us, precision, and precision by giving us the very small gives us everything.

Nanometre engineering.

What’s a nanometre? Well nanometres are a very tiny length, so small that you can measure individual molecules with them (and some atoms), it used to be called a millimicron by some engineers, and physicists preferred to call a nanometre, ten Ångströms until recently. 1 nanometre is a billionth of a metre, or to give that unimaginable number some concreteness, the cell membranes in your body are about 8 nanometres thick, and DNA is about 2nm wide (although it is much longer than you would believe) and by sheer coincidence the length of four base pairs is about 1 nanometre. Because of this you might be forgiven for thinking that such marvels of miniaturization as “The Fantastic Voyage” or “Inner Space” fall within the realms of Nano-technology, but the actual miniaturization of matter (or matter compression, or any of its variants) is purely fantasy (spacial compression on the other hand…) especially when whole broken submarines are abandonned inside a body and the miniaturisation runs out. So, no matter how cool it may be to tell tales of people being shrunk and injected into human bodies, having to fight white blood cells (or lymphocytes as biologists prefer to categorise them), and escape the body by riding sneezes or leaking out in body fluids, since they could never be science I probably shouldn’t have mentioned them.

Robert Picardo in Innerspace, at least in this Joe Dante film we saw more of him than in Explorers

Wait, Cyborgs was last month, and… hang on… is that the holo-doctor from Voyager with Martin Short’s hair? Must be Innerspace…

Now with Nano particles…

Everything is better with nano-engineering, whether you want to build faster computers, store more information, create new chemicals (whether pharmaceutical, engineering or just molecules for kicks), you can even design better detergents (seriously it’s the ultimate swiss army knife of technology). You can imagine that we are on the brink of a new future where materials are designed perfectly for the job required. All it requires is a little imagination and you can see the nano-revolution will follow the digital revolution as the latest phase of our technological evolution. So with all these possibilities you might imagine that science-fiction must be brimming with stories about the wonders of this new age, well… Nanotechnology came along a little late as a concept, and so didn’t get the same kind of exposure during the golden age of science-fiction. Sure there were tales of tiny robots, or tiny writing, but very little science-fiction before the nineteen eighties ventured to dare that man-kind may one day manipulate atoms to create specific molecules for specific jobs. For some reason Nanotechnology just didn’t seem, well… feasible until we started doing it. A few visionary physicists had thought about the issue, Richard Feynman’s “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” discusses the eventual possibilities, but we didn’t really have a clue what he was talking about at the time. Of course, once we started being able to manipulate atoms directly the technology started to look more feasible, in fact some technologies that we knew were ancient suddenly revealed their nanoscale underpinnings. With Roman glassware having nano-surfaces created by simple principles, and the discovery that Damascus Steel contained carbon nanotubes and nanowires along the length of the blade, even its famous “peacock patterning” was discovered to be the result of nanoscale structures in the surface of the blade. These examples of nano-engineering were only discovered after science had already worked out complex ways to reproduce the results of quite simple ancient techniques, such as heat treatments and repeated folding of carbon and iron in the blade. Sometime around the early eighties the science-fiction of genetic engineering and science-fiction of robots had a little theoretical child. In 1983 Greg Bear published a doozy of a short story in which he introduced programmed genetic machines, augmented lymphocytes (white blood cells to most people), and is cited as many as the first use of “nanotechnology” in science-fiction. Though it is the initial thematic of the story, the novel (which naturally came later) actually uses the “Noocytes”, as the protagonist names them, to explore what observation by billions of tiny AIs does to people and the reality that they observe, in some interesting and Transhumanist ways. Stanislaw Lem wrote Peace on Earth in 1987 in which automated factories designed to manufacture ever more complex weapons on the moon get more than a little out of hand. Which is close to the grey goo discussed in “Engines of Creation” which is technically a non-fiction science book examining the new Science.

Graphene and the Diamond Age

When you get down to it the first books to really examine the technology this new science was evolving were the latter cyberpunk novels. The wetwares and implants of the genre lent themselves to extensions into the cellular scale, with cyber-augmentation of immune systems, muscular and bone structures. But one term that turns up over and over in the cyberpunk works is the term, “monomolecular” the idea that a blade edge may be just one molecule thick, this seemed like incredible science-fiction, although in reality surgical tools made from obsidian do approach this monomolecular edge (yes they are the same technology as flint weapons, and Obsidian tools were common in the Mezo-America throughout history). This was picked up on by Neal Stephenson in his break-through novel “Snow Crash“, but he bettered this with his semi-sequel “The Diamond Age“.

The Diamond Age (one of the many variant covers)

The Diamond Age (one of the many variant covers)

Diamond Age is pure Nano-punk, and demonstrates a plausible future that includes molecular engines and engineering (and is a bloody good read to boot). Within the confines of the novel universe, mankind has developed technologies that allow automated booths to assemble everything a person might need from component atoms that travel along a “feed”. A little like the way water or gas reaches your home today. The feed manufactures everything that consumers want, from food, and medicine to toys. You just need to pay for the raw materials and any intellectual property that a design may have. Some things, like simple foods and blankets are free, provided by the pseudo-governmental institutions that run the feed. Of course it’s Cyberpunk influenced, so what could be the utopia of the “Star Trek: TNG” universe is altogether grittier, darker and grungier than even the mirror universe. When Neal was writing his novels we already knew that Carbon was a miracle element, we are made from it, and so were diamonds and graphite, we began to notice the structures that carbon could build were very important. This lead to the discovery of C60, better known as Buckminsterfullerene, or the bucky-ball. This was an entirely new structure of Carbon, that it turned out when we knew what we were looking for, had been forming in soot for millions of years. Initially they thought that Buckyballs would represent a wonder lubricant, a dry powder of tiny soot bearings that could replace oil, and that may still come to pass although carbon based lubricants have been surpassed by using particles that more effectively slide over each other (Molybdenum Disulphide, or Boron Nitride) and maintain these properties in vacuum (as carbon does not), but they discovered that the fundamental structure of the buckyball could be extended. Bigger balls were possible, we could build tubes of Buckminsterfullerene. Also called Carbon nanotubes, they had the strength of steel for a tenth the weight, nano-scale spider silk with a cross-section of less than a square millimetre could lift 6 metric tonnes, undoubtedly we are only a few years from being able to produce nanotubes of macroscopic lengths, and once we’ve done that we’ll start spinning cars, planes and buildings from pure Carbon (at least assuming that we can work out how to make the things safe). Recently the technologists and scientists worked out that you could unroll a fullerene tube and created another new material (which they then started finding lying around in everything from charcoal to pencil doodles). This new form of carbon had even more uses than the other forms, it could be turned into monomolecular sheets, creating molecular sieves, bullet and knife-proof armour and offering all manner of advantages in computing and energy efficiency. The new structural allotrope of “Graphene” had been added to the carbon nano-engineering canon, even though it was nothing more than a single sheet of the most common allotrope graphite. Nor is Carbon alone in this structural allotropy, almost every element it turns out displays differing characteristics depending upon the structures created.

The State of the Art

Those of us who track such things are quite impressed with where Nanotechnology has gotten so far. While we are still a long way off from engineering vacuum-lifted diamond airships, we have started building carbon nano-tube computers and nano-technology has become ubiquitous with even clothing now featuring nano-engineering to give materials new strengths, new capabilities like power generation, water repelling, and even glue-like static cling. We have got pretty good at weaving carbon nanotubes into quite a lot of things now, and have proved technologies like nano-motors are possible. In fact we do stand at the beginning of a new “age” of industry, but no one is quite sure what to call it yet, Diamond Age not withstanding… Yet there are limits that we are discovering, we have yet to build Nanotubes at any length greater than 19 centimetres, which somewhat limits our ability to make nanotube cables yet. But the real advantages of these structures are when we look at things like thermal, electrical and field propagation properties. It is possible to modify the shapes of nanotubes in so many ways that we are still flailing around like kids with lego, we’ve put a few pieces together so far, but we’ve yet to find the instructions to building the thing on the front of the box. Soon we’ll see nanotechnology creating superconductors, and superinsulators which will allow us to build supercapacitors capable of running mobile phones for a week at a time off a few hours (or maybe even seconds depending on how dangerous they are) charging time, and who knows how much energy production technologies may be improved by future developments, we may be able to produce nano-generators that can create power almost magically from nothing more than the brownian motion in the air, and computers so efficient that they can challenge our own brains for efficiency (we are currently still orders of magnitude away from this). So Nano-tech is coming, and in many cases has been here a while… but that’s not what we’re really talking about when we say Nanite, is it?

Self Assembly

When science-fiction talks about Nanites, we don’t just understand it to mean that these technologies are tiny. There is an implied sense that Nanites are Self-Assembling. They can reproduce, creating more of themselves. The idea being that if you are injected with a medical treatment to go into your body and break up a dangerous blood clot (wait I’m sure I’ve heard this plot before) you don’t have to worry about injecting enough of them. If the clot is too much for one to handle, the little thing will assemble molecules lying around in the body (including the clot itself) to copy its own design and then both machines will work on the problem.

Nano probe harrasses spiky pollen ball

Nano probe harrasses spiky pollen ball

Of course such “assemblers” will cause all sorts of problems if they decide to strip healthy tissues to create more of themselves, and if truly self-assembling they would be capable of moving beyond the body, replicating in the soil, plants, buildings even the air itself potentially. This quickly turns into the “Grey Goo” scenario, where a swarm of replicating Nanites strips the earth of everything that came before and we see the birth of a new form of life. Technologists are well aware of these potential problems, but are hypnotised by the potential benefits. Who wouldn’t want an injection that can fix broken bones, or an inoculation, given in utero that can be updated by wi-fi to provide the latest virus definitions to keep us all free from the flu (and finally a cure for the common cold)? Who potentially wouldn’t want to be able to grow replacement limbs or organs, with little more trouble than downloading an app? Of course,  there are huge ethical problems with this technology, assuming we can get it to work in the first place. If we have computers inside us, talking to the outside world, we know that hackers will hack it, and being taken over –  as your nervous system is hijacked by a Chinese teenager to run a few errands for him –  could be a problem one day. And that’s before we talk about the ethics of mucking about with brain chemistry and structure for experimental purposes (broadcast Euphoria anyone?), or simulated memory implantation or real intellectual property theft (why bother headhunting that top flight engineer when you can just poach his brain and replicate it in one of your maintenance drudges from sector 7-G?). From a science-fiction author’s point of view all of this is great; we can explore futures where social media involves uploading the memories you’ve just had, where clothing can grow from your flesh, and where talking to yourself usually means you are telepresencing on another continent, to say nothing of the dystopian possibilities of Nano-warrior protocols, grey goo wars, mind-hacking, or an underclass of people who rent out their bodies to telepresencing business people from another continent, so that they can attend that conference in person, and still be home for little Elsbeth’s Piano recital (all Bar one of these I covered in my “Paradox War Trilogy” so you might want to think of some ideas of your own…).