Friday, August 28, 2009

Watch for big things from little particles

The buzz surrounding nanotechnology is becoming increasingly loud.

Nano-this, nano-that; it seems that every day there is a new bunch of headlines on the wires that extol a new use for nano-technology.

Even here in New Zealand we're seeing nanotech headlines making the front page. Today for example, we read that a Victoria University student, John Watt has been named the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year for his work in nanotech.

Unlike some esoteric theoretical application, Watt's work has come up with a practical way to significantly reduce the amount of Palladium needed in vehicle catalytic converters.

So what is so important about nanotech that makes it such an exciting new frontier of science and technology?

Well the answer may well be quite a bit more exciting than first meets the eye.

We live in a universe that exists on two basic scales: the Newtonian scale and the quantum scale.

The only scale we're directly aware of is the Newtonian one. This is where all those simple laws of physics apply. Mass, acceleration, action/reaction, and the concepts that we see in effect every day are easy enough to understand and we've built most of our existing technology using these basic laws of physics and chemistry.

The quantum world is a whole different kettle of fish however, and a realm into which we've only just begun to move.

Because the quantum world deals with the basic building blocks of matter (electrons, protons, neutrons, photons and the like) it's very difficult for us to control and observe what's happening. The very act of "taking a peek" at a photon will sometimes actually change its behaviour.

If you think of the quantum world like a billiard table, the only way we can tell whether there are any balls on the table, which direction they're traveling and how fast they're moving is to roll another ball across the felt and see if it is deflected by hitting another. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, when the ball we roll hits another, that ball will itself be deflected by the collision so although we know where it *was*, we no longer know where it is.

This is why physicists use terms such as "probability" when dealing with objects at a quantum level. We don't know for sure what the position and speed of a quantum object is, we only know what the probability is that it'll be in any particular place at any particular time.

But that's enough of basic quantum theory -- there are plenty of resources on the Net if you want to learn more (hint: YouTube is your friend).

The exciting thing about nanotechnology is that when you make things small enough, they stop strictly obeying Newtonian laws and start to be affected by quantum laws. Given that quantum laws can be significantly different to Newtonian ones, incredible new doors open to scientists and technologists.

Things that are impossible on a Newtonian scale become possible at a quantum scale so we are now realising a fascinating world of potential advances in technology.

While the current range of practical applications for nanotech are still limited by the technology we have for making such materials, the future is looking incredibly promising.

For example, quantum physics has been mentioned many times in respect to encryption and security but here's an interesting twist on the use of nanotech in a more traditional form of data-hiding.

Keep a watchful eye on the advances being made in the world of nanotech, you might be surprised at what pops up.

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