Einstein’s theory of relativity was all about the very, very big, such as the speed of light, spacetime, gravity, and relativistic velocities. As Einstein brought humanity into the universe of the very, very big, others have made headway into the very, very small.
From Richard Feynman’s work on the path integral formulation to David Deutsch’s description of the universal quantum computer, the very small has generated a very large amount of interest.
So what are the applications of a very small world? Well, Engineers at the University of New South Wales in Australia have developed micro-submarines that can navigate the human body.
Nanotech, a History
The idea of micro-machines, or nanobots, has been around for a long time, but what ARE these nanobots?
Well, have you ever seen Big Hero 6? Avengers: Infinity War? Star Trek: Discovery? (If you haven’t, avoid that last one). Each of them features the movie industries version of what they think nano-bots are. In all of them, nanobots are basically magic that can do anything by thinking. Their array of abilities are like playing roulette in an online casino; you never know what’s going to come up.
In Big Hero 6, they can crawl across ceilings and support human weights while being controlled remotely by the human mind. In Avengers, they can build Iron Man’s power armor. In Discovery, they sort of… possess people? Anyway, the idea is that very small robots can be designed to do a huge variety of tasks by working together in large numbers.
In the real world, Nanobots are still very much in the Research and Development phase.
Developing Nanobots is obviously a very difficult task because there are so many design challenges that have to be overcome. The Nanobots need to sense, communicate, navigate, manipulate, and compute, while still being less than ten micrometers in size.
So while we won’t see Nanobot swarms building skyscrapers for us, there is one field where Nanobots are most likely to be seen in use in the coming years: the medical field. In fact, this supposition is so likely that a proposal has been made to the United Nations that Nanobiotech should be developed on open design, using open-source soft and hardware, so that everyone will have access to it.
The Potential of Nanotechnolgy
The benefits of such technology are mind-blowing. Nanobots are capable of delivering precise medical treatments to individual cells within the human body. There no need to cut a person’s entire torso open when a tiny robot can enter the body and get to the damaged parts from the inside, is there?
Nanobots can target drug delivery, surgery, monitor diabetes, and pharmacokinetics (the study of drugs in the human body to see where they end up). Most fascinating is the potential for cancer treatment. At the moment, the most effective way to treat most cancers is with chemotherapy, which involves flooding the body with very dangerous toxins in order to kill off the cancerous cells. This is dangerous and sickening in and of itself, and not foolproof.
Nanobots, on the other hand, would be able to enter and actively target and destroy the individual cancerous cells.
UNSW’s New Tech
Meanwhile, the University of New South Wales has developed special nano-motors that can navigate through the human body, overcoming one of the main challenges nanotechnology presents.
“…we designed micro-motors that no longer rely on external manipulation to navigate to a specific location.” Dr. Kang Liang said in a press statement. “Instead, they take advantage of variations in biological environments to automatically navigate themselves.”
Liang’s team imagines a point where a pill could contain millions of nanobots, each of which would hold millions of drug molecules.
“Once in the gastrointestinal fluid,” said Liang, “the micro-submarines carrying the medicine could be released. Within the fluid, they could travel to the upper or bottom region depending on the orientation of the patient. The drug-loaded particles can then be internalized by the cells at the site of the cancer. Once inside the cells, they will be degraded causing the release of the drugs to fight the cancer in a very targeted and efficient way.”
“We are planning to apply this new finding to other types of nanoparticles to prove the versatility of this technique,” Liang finished positively, and while the technology is still a long way off, it’s getting closer every year.