Can Nanotechnology Save Lives?

Harvard professor and scientific genius George Whitesides believes that nanotechnology will change medicine as we know it

Polymer fronds a few thousand nanometers long wrap around even tinier plymer spheres. (Felice C. Frankel)
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Scientists have created carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders two nanometers or less in diameter, that turn out to be the strongest material in the world, 100 times stronger than steel with one-sixth the weight. They’ve created nanoparticles—less than 100 nanometers wide and useful for very precise biomedical images. Scientists have also made nanowires—silicon threads 10 to 100 nanometers wide and capable of converting heat to electricity. Electronics manufacturers say nanowires could make use of waste heat from computers, car engines and power plants.

Already, more than 1,000 consumer products use some form of nanotechnology (even though a 2008 report from the National Academy of Sciences urged better monitoring of potential health and environmental risks from nanotechnology). The products include stronger and lighter bike frames, fabric treatments that deflect liquids, sunscreens that repel sunlight better, memory cards for computers, and fog-resistant coatings for eyeglass lenses.

Scientists are developing nanoparticles that can deliver just the right amount of medicine to kill a tumor but nothing else around it. Other nanoparticles can detect mercury contamination in water; one day the particles may be used in filters to remove the toxic metal.

The big, life-changing stuff made from little stuff is still ahead of us. Things like batteries that can last months and power electric cars, made from nanowires built by viruses—Angela Belcher at MIT is working on that, and President Obama is so excited by the technology that he has met with her. (See “Invisible Engineers”.) A Hewlett-Packard lab, led by nanotech visionary Stan Williams, just announced a partnership with Shell to develop ultrasensitive devices to detect oil; in principle, they can register nanoscale shifts in the earth caused by movements in oil fields. Williams calls the product a “central nervous system for the earth.”

The prospect of the world fundamentally changing because of nanotechnology is still more dreamy than real, but to experts the possibilities seem almost endless. Scientists have created nanostructures that can self-assemble, meaning they can form into bigger objects with little or no outside direction. Someday these minute objects could, theoretically, build themselves into a machine that makes more nanoparticles. Already, IBM uses self-assembly techniques to produce insulation in computer chips. A center at MIT called the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is working on indestructible battle armor that can react to chemical weapons.

“Everywhere you look,” Whitesides says, “you see pieces, and they’re all pointing in different directions.”

Whitesides doesn’t know exactly how he got here. Here being Harvard, this lab, this life. Growing up in a small Kentucky town, the son of a homemaker and a chemical engineer, he stuck out at school. One day, a teacher called his parents and said he’d like to talk with them about their son. Their hearts sank. “‘What’s the little bastard done now?’” Whitesides recalls of his parents’ reaction.

The teacher said, “You’ve got to get your kid out of here. I’ve arranged for him to go to Andover.”

“I had never heard of Andover,” Whitesides says now of the elite Massachusetts prep school. “I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know where New England was.”

And then, somehow, he ended up attending Harvard. “I don’t even remember having applied here. I just got a letter at some point admitting me. So I suppose I came here by accident.”


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