When it comes to technology, some say bigger is better. But there’s another frontier in the realm of the super-tiny. Nanotechnology is the term for all the ways engineers can manipulate atoms and molecules on a scale way too small to be visible to the naked eye. To get an idea of how small, picture a single grain of talcum powder, a spec that averages a diameter of about 27,000 nanometers. Scientists believe nanotechnology could help create clean energy, improve medicine, and make electronic devices exponentially more powerful — and that’s just for starters. Though it’s an idea that is still in its infancy, nanotechnology is expected to be worth $60 billion by the end of the decade.
The a-ha moment
The idea of pushing engineering into the micro scale is generally credited to physicist Richard Feynman, who discussed the idea in a 1950s lecture. But it really took off in the 1980s, when author K. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. The book predicted that one day miniscule devices would be able to replicate themselves atom by atom, leading to a world teeming with useful micro-machines. (Or, more pessimistically, beset by a “gray goo” of swarming micro-Terminators.)