In 1969, NASA put a man on the moon with the help of a lot of great minds and state of the art technology. The Apollo Guidance Computer that helped astronauts land on the moon was some of the most advanced computing technology of its day with 64 kilobytes of memory and operating at a speed of 0.043 megahertz.
However, by modern standards, this important guidance system was less equipped than our modern electric toaster. Today, the iPhone 6 has thousands of times the processing power of the Apollo computer and is able to make millions of computations every second. The smartphones we hold in our hands today could have, theoretically, sent thousands of spaceships like the Apollo 11 to the moon simultaneously.
How did technology advance so far so fast? Part of the answer lies in our ability to do incredible work at the tiniest scale. Our ability to shrink computer parts down to fit millions of them in the palms of our hands was determined by our understanding of and ability to work with materials on a nanoscale.
One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Imagine dividing the period at the end of this sentence into ten thousand smaller parts, and you have a nanometer. If you could shrink yourself down to the size of one water molecule, you would be slightly less than one nanometer in size. Working with materials at this minuscule scale has been a massive challenge with major rewards.
Take the evolution of the transistor, for example. Transistors are electrical components that are the backbone of computing. At the most basic level, transistors take electrical input and turn it into output that computers process and turn into the information we read on a screen. Generally speaking, the number of transistors determines the number of computations a computer can run. The more transistors, the more computations.
Early transistors from the 1940s were several inches tall, which is why our first computers filled large rooms and only completed basic computations. The shrinking of transistors, thanks to advances in nanotechnology, helped simultaneously decrease the size of computers and increase the number computations and computing power of almost all of our electronic devices.
How do we do all this with nanotechnology? At the atomic level, or nanoscale, many common materials exhibit unusual properties that make them incredibly useful. Thanks to atomic level research, scientists discovered how to manipulate the transistor’s key elements, Silicon and Germanium, among others, to create more efficient transistors that can measure only a few nanometers in length. Our ability to manipulate matter at the nanoscale enables innovations that weren’t possible before, like the billions of tiny transistors that make up the processor for your smartphone.
Nanotechnology is revolutionizing research and development in not only computing, but also medicine, new materials, food, energy and other areas. Nano will affect our economy, the environment, and our personal lives. Some scientists think that future nanotechnologies and materials could transform our lives as much as cars, the personal computer, or the internet! But the costs, risks, and benefits of this new technology can be difficult to understand, both for experts and for the general public.
In March the Science Zone will be taking a deep dive into this nearly invisible science and celebrating the miracles of modern science and engineering with NanoDays. This event is one of hundreds celebrated across the country to help people understand the mind boggling advances in technology that go by unseen in our day to day lives.
Visit the Science Zone on March 17 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to imagine a future full of new nanotechnologies. Dissect electronics with screwdrivers and wire cutters to go on a nano scavenger hunt. Extra hands-on activities throughout the day will explore nanotechnology in our lives including sunglasses and polarized light, flat electrical circuits, changing colors, and maybe even how it could change the way we eat!