Teeny, tiny tech

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Optimized microchannels also can convert vegetable oils into diesel fuel. Soon a field of soybeans or agricultural products could be converted to diesel fuel to run a tank, officials said.

Nanotech also could mean big savings. James Murday, chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research, said a nanotech-based structural coating for naval vessels starting to be used could save $100 million per year because of improved friction wear.

“Without question nanotech is very important for the military and most of the nanotech-based products in the defense area haven’t arrived yet,” Mr. Murday said.

Nanotechnology is often viewed as a radical science that will bring monumental changes. Practical results, however, have been mainly new and improved consumer products, suggesting the technology has been hyped.

Mr. Roco, nonetheless, has a sweeping vision of nanotechnology helping industries globally. The NSF has predicted that worldwide nanotechnology-based applications will be worth $1 trillion per year by 2015.

“Nano is also entering, very fast, biology and medicine and we will start to have significant applications such as increasing human performance,” he said.

Creating organ replacements has been the goal of many nanotech researchers. ONAMI is within three years of completing a kidney dialysis machine small enough to carry, and officials believe it can eventually be reduced enough to replace a kidney entirely.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School, scientists have made a tiny, functioning vascular system, which is considered a big step in making whole organs.

Nanotechnology has been seen by some as a potentially dangerous development that could spin out of control.

But Mr. Rung, said the potential danger is equivalent to a chemical spill.

Nanoscale particles generally have increased toxicity because they are highly reactive. To eliminate hazards, Oregon institutions are working on benign versions of nanoparticles that contain cellulose and biodegrade in six months. ONAMI is developing a portable factory where nanoparticles are made in microreactors exactly where they are needed.

“It completely eliminates the dangers of making them in a factory in one place and shipping to the point of use,” Mr. Drost said.

Portable factories also have space applications. Mr. Drost said researchers in Oregon are designing a system to make rocket fuel on Mars so the fuel doesn’t have to be brought. If successful, spacecraft would weigh less, have simpler design, reduced dangers and lower cost.

 

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