At some point in most discussions of nanotechnology and its impact, we get definitions (with or without Greek etymology), it’s current and projected market value and a list of its applications whether they be its current ones or possible ones in the future.
Getting something other than this is sort of like asking someone to describe a spiral staircase without using their hands, it can be done but they have to concentrate for a moment. The same goes for nanotechnology. You can either stop for a moment and consider some new way of describing nanotechnology’s impact or you can do what’s usually done and give the same answers people have been offering for the last 10 years.
Granted the definition part is hard to be creative with, but I am getting pretty tired of seeing the same commercial applications trotted out year after year. The one that has finally got me annoyed is Nanocor’s use of nanoclays in plastics for beer bottles.
I guess what annoys me the most is my own frequent use of this example. I am not angry with myself so much for my lack of imagination, although that’s a factor, but that we are turning to the same commercial applications for examples that we were using 8 years ago.
I was beginning to feel renewed when I saw Russell Cowburn, Professor nanotechnology at Imperial College London (another lab I had the good fortune to tour), liken nanotechnology to Henry Ford’s production line. Cowburn goes on to describe how many people who first saw Ford’s production line mistakenly believed that it was only applicable to automobile manufacturing. He argues that people are making the same mistake today about nanotechnology. It is not restricted to a few specific areas of manufacturing but will one day be ubiquitous. Nicely done.But my enthusiasm began to wane when I read in the same article Christof Woelcken, nanotechnology expert at Airbus Airframe Architecture and Integration Department, offer up nano-engineered paints for resisting the expansion and contraction of airplane parts as one of the applications for nanotechnology in aviation. I have argued here myself that we need to understand that it is often the mundane that is interesting when looking at the applications for nanotechnology. But I would almost be more excited if he had talked about structural materials that made the plane lighter or maybe some fuel additives that made the engines more efficient. Of course, what I would really like to hear about is how nanotechnology is finally going to make possible the realization of the HyperSoar plane for commercial aircraft. Not that it's ever been on nanotechnology's list, I am just fascinated with the HyperSoar plane concept.
But I have to remember my own advice and remember also that patience is a virtue.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.