This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
About the Expert
Dan Allen is a physicist and chief technology officer at a tech startup creating products with advanced sensors. His first novel is Fall of Dragon Prince, YA fiction from Jolly Fish Press. He has designed lasers for the government that see through envelopes and (eek!) clothing, lit a three-story electron accelerator on fire, and created nanoparticles in a radioactive hot lab (sorry, no spiders allowed).
Writing Believable Nanotechnology
Note: if Ironman’s Extremis formulation seemed believable to you, read no further.
A short list of science fiction nanotech no-no’s:
- Nanobots take over everything or impart limitless energy…without any source of power.
- Nanotechnology transforms living tissue into materials that aren’t found in the body.
- Nanotech: an electronic device you can spray from a can.
Just as Harry Potter can’t do magic without a wand, there are basic rules to nanotechnology. To avoid mistakes that make your sci-fi read like a fourth grader’s nonsensical ramblings rather than a piece of seriously awesome fiction, remember the basics:
- Conservation of matter: nanotechnology does not make something from nothing
- Conservation of energy: making and breaking chemical bonds takes energy
- If it sounds ludicrous, it probably is—but not always!
The basic idea is the smaller something gets, the more specific its functionality. Nanobots, by their nature, have very limited, possibly just one, molecular function. How you wreak utter mayhem with nanotech, or ultimately harness or stop it is the clarion challenge for both writers and engineers. The short introduction below to the foundations of nanotech will give you numerous launching off points for book research and idea discovery.
Foundations of Nanotech
The concept of nanotechnology arguably began with a speech by one of mankind’s greatest minds Richard Feynman, which he gave at Caltech in 1959 called “There is plenty of room at the bottom”. There, at the dawn of the electronic age, the visionary physicist proposed radical ideas about the possibilities of controlling the world at the very small scale, from storing entire libraries on the head of pin (which we now do) to designer nanoscale machines and ingestible nanoscale medical diagnostics and robots (some of which are in FDA trials).
But how small is a nanometer (10-9 or 0.000000001 meters)?
Time to exercise your imagination.
Imagine a dog. It’s about a meter long. How many fleas can you fit on the back of the dog? Several thousand, easily. A flea is about a millimeter, give or take—a thousandth of a meter. Now imagine a flea blown up to the size of a dog. How many bacteria can you fit on the back of a flea? A few thousand, comfortably. Bacteria are typically a few microns (millionths of a meter). Now image a bacterium blown up to the size of a dog. How many proteins can you fit on the back of a single bacterium? Thousands.
Now, at the size scale of a protein, we are finally measuring in nanometers. That’s how small a nanometer is. And each nanoscale protein has how many atoms? Guess. That’s right, thousands (give or take). This size scale can now be readily imaged with the electron (SEM or TEM) and atomic force (AFM) microscopes.
Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field, with foundations in four different areas from which innovations begin and combine.
Proteins are a few nanometers across, made up of groups of atoms (amino acids) linked together in a string that folds up into a functional nano-machine, nature’s original “nanobots”. Proteins make and break molecules, allowing us to metabolize energy and build new cells. Some change configuration when they receive a chemical signal or are hit by light, e.g. those are used in our nervous system and eyesight.
Proteins are the biological starting point of nanotechnology and provide a terrifying example of what happens when things go wrong. A misfolded protein, called a prion, if ingested will cause other proteins to misfold, resulting in a chain reaction that slowly turns your brain to mush: mad cow disease. If ever there was a rational basis for a doomsday nanotech disaster or zombie apocalypse, it is prions.
DNA is another nanostructure whose Lego blocks are called nucleic acids. Complex sugars (polysaccharides) are a third class: small simple molecules joining together to form massive structures like redwood trees. And, of course, there is the most dangerous form of nano-biology: the virus, a nanoscale object containing only DNA (or RNA) and protein, capable of causing a cell to make copies of it until the cell bursts, releasing more viruses. All these kinds of biological replication by self-assembly are “bottom up” methods. But biological nanotech is only one corner of the four-sided interdisciplinary nanotech pyramid.
The second corner of the nanotech pyramid is chemistry. Chemists have made complex self-assembling nanostructures of all shapes and sizes using the basic buildings blocks from biology: proteins, DNA and sugars, and added their own new categories: glowing nanocrystals able to detect cancer, nimble porphyrins that form complex 3D structures, not to mention soccer ball-shaped fullerines (“buckyballs”) that can be made into sensitive detectors as well as nano-cages for delivering medicine to target cells.
The third foundation of nanotechnology derives from photolithography, nano-imprint and other clean room “fab” technologies used in the manufacture of microchips. These top-down approaches are now defining transistors with minimum dimensions of only 16nm, with 12nm on the near horizon. We are literally making transistors the size of proteins. Commonplace nanotech includes transparent transistors (used in LCD screens) as well as printed flexible circuits, batteries and antennas, and complex micro electromechanical systems (MEMS). Notably, MEMS devices can harvest energy from vibrations and passing radio waves.
The last nanotech frontier is materials science, which has been working at the nanoscale since Roman times. Steel is a nanotech invention. Carbon dissolved in the iron forms nano-scale defects when the iron is cooled. The defects are all tangled up in the iron crystal, like a nano-scale nappy hair rat extending all the way through the material. When the steel is stressed, the defects, all pulling on each other, can’t migrate away from the stress point. So the steel doesn’t deform. It is both hard, and shatter-resistant, a property pure crystals can’t achieve.
Other nanotech materials innovations include superhydrophobic coatings—water literally balls up on a surface and rolls off, as well as growth of nanostructured crystal layers used in lasers and LEDs that engineer the quantum properties of electrons, and graphene and carbon nanotubes with astonishing world record properties like tensile strength and thermal and electrical conductivity.
Any of the four foundations can be the starting point for a nanotech adventure. But just like you need energy to grow, to build muscle, or repair damage, so do all forms of nanotechnology. The likeliest energy source is unfortunately you, or perhaps sunlight, although complex chemical structures tend to degrade quickly in sunlight.
Will nanobots someday be implanted in our bodies to fight disease? Will they change our very nature and our society?
In 1959 Feynman said yes, and he’s been right on everything else so far!
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