Futurists have long speculated that nanotechnology — the engineering of materials and devices at the molecular scale — will revolutionize virtually every field it touches, medicine being no exception. Here's what to expect when you have fleets of molecule-sized robots coursing through your veins.
To learn more about the potential for medical nanotech, I contacted Frank Boehm, author of the recently released book, Nanomedical Device and Systems Design: Challenges, Possibilities, Visions.
Boehm has been involved with nanotechnology and especially nanomedicine since 1996, and has been developing numerous concepts and designs for advanced nanomedical tools. His ultimate goal is to develop and transform these concepts into real world applications for global benefit.
During our conversation, we spoke about current nanomedical efforts and those still yet to come — including molecule-sized robots and capsules that will detect and treat diseases. But we also talked about the potential for nanotechnology to radically alter human capacities, such as giving us infrared and night vision, extended lifespans, and the ability to live and work in outer space and planetary colonies. We also discussed the downsides and what we'll have to do to protect our nano-infused selves from hackers and viruses.
io9: Nanomedicine is often used to describe two different things, nanotechnology and biomimetics. What's the difference?
Frank Boehm: Nanotechnology is a powerful and fundamental enabling technology that involves the ability to manipulate matter at the nanometer (nm) scale (1 nm being equivalent to one billionth of a meter, or a thousandth of a thousandth of the thin side of a dime), and it's commonly in the range of 1 to 100 nm.
The ability to work at this scale will allow for the fabrication of unique materials and devices with improved and novel properties, such as enhanced water repellency (superhydrophobicity), or the increased performance of chemical reactions (catalysis) due to dramatically increased active surface areas.
Biomimetics, on the other hand, involves the development of unique artificial surfaces, devices or systems, through the inspiration and emulation of naturally occurring processes or systems. For instance, superhydrophobicity was inspired by the natural waterproofing system of the lotus plant (Nelumbo nucifera) and is known as the Lotus Effect.