Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 18:00 UK

Looking ahead to tiny technology

How nanos could be used in the future

Marc Cieslak travels to Zurich in Switzerland to discover some of the ambitions scientists have for the world's tiniest technology.

Far smaller than contemporary microtechnology, the developing field of nanotechnology deals with devices a thousand times smaller.

Microtechnology has already revolutionised the world by miniaturising the proportions of everything from mobile phones to laptops, and cramming more computing power into smaller devices.

Nanotechnology could lead to robots as small as blood cells and has already produced transistors at least a thousand times slimmer than a human hair.

This precision engineering involves manipulating molecules to exploit the unusual electrical and optical properties that operate at these small scales.

Storage devices

In Zurich scientists from IBM are using nanotechnology to develop the next generation of computing.

Scientists working on the next generation of computing
Nanotech is being developed for the next generation of computing

"Our whole industry lives off the fact that we can put more and more on smaller and smaller space, make it cheaper, and also very important, less power consuming in the future," said Matthias Kaiserswerth, director of IBM's Zurich research lab.

He added that his industry has benefited from Moore's law - which states that the computational power of semiconductors doubles every 18 months - but this will come to an end in "the next 10 to 15 years".

Memory storage devices, he believes, will be one of the areas where the miniature technology will first produce results.

Some everyday products already benefit from nanotechnology. Skin creams and sun block use tiny particles to make them less sticky and provide better shielding against UV rays.

Robocup football

Scientists at ETH, The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, are working on another cutting edge area of the technology - nano-robotic development.

 football on a 1mm long playing field
The technology used in Robocup is being developed for surgery

They have created a real robot less than a millimetre in size, which could one day deliver drugs or perform microscopic surgery.

For now it has been made to play football and the ETH group took it to the US to compete in last year's Robocup football tournament.

The competition was played by autonomous robots who had to push a ball into the goals of a 1mm long playing field.

The same research group is using the technology developed in this competition to develop autonomous robots which would, for example, function inside the body and make repairs.

Commercial sphere

There are plans to build a nano robot small enough to fit inside a syringe, and to inject it into a human eye where it can carry out surgery.

However, one of the big challenges for scientists designing these tiny robots is providing them with a power supply.

Creating engines or batteries at a nano scale is difficult and many current nanobots are powered and controlled by electromagnetic fields.

Comparison of shapes between nanos and bacteria
Current nanobots are powered and controlled by electromagnetic fields

Another factor to take into account is how interacting with the physical world changes when working on such tiny scales. For instance, if a human were shrunk to nano size performing actions like swimming would be impossible.

Some nanobots have taken their design from nature by mimicking the spinning motion real bacteria use to move through fluids.

Both nanobots and nano-scale components for computers are a few years away from finding their way onto shop shelves - but when they do, they could signal a new hi-tech revolution.

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