The first of many mysteries to cross the minds of visitors to Taiwan's inaugural Nanotechnology Conference and Exhibition is what on Earth the technology has to do with underwear. Wasn't this the new great realm of science and engineering that was to rid the world of diseases, revolutionize manufacturing, and create materials many times stronger than steel, among a host of other applications? Wasn't our journey into inner space going to be as great as our journey to outer space?
It was. And for many of the industry's start-up enterprises and long-term advocates, the final destination that molecular engineering promised remains, though the horizon may be further away than it at first seemed.
"In order to attract investment, there had to be more immediate business applications. In order for there to be further research and development, the existing technology must prove profitable," said Stephen P.H. Chung (
And so, underwear. Fibers spun from nano-sized materials create undergarments that breathe easily, keep the wearer cool, and resist odors. Other early-market applications of nanotechnology include fog-resistant glass, stain and scratch-resistant materials, baseballs that fly farther and faster, cosmetics that apply more evenly, solar cells that make better use of sunlight, alcohol that distills quickly and tires that hug the road. The uses seem limitless and the many business opportunities promised by the convention's keynote speakers are obvious. But make no mistake; the nanotechnology industry in its current state, has more to do with industry than nanotechnology.
The technology had its intellectual beginnings in a 1959 talk given by physicist Richard Feynman titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." In it he said that the principles of physics, as far as he could see, "do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom."
He told a classroom of incredulous Caltech students about a future in which all the information written in every book in the Library of Congress, The British Museum and National Library of France -- a combined 24 million volumes, he estimated -- could be written on a cube of material "one two-hundredth of an inch wide -- which is the barest piece of dust that can be made out by the human eye." He mused about the medical possibilities if patients could "swallow their surgeon" and of the physical possibility of building atomic-scale machines that were themselves capable of building similar atomic-scale machines -- a production process that already had a precedent, he said, in our own DNA.
He likely didn't conceive of nanotech underwear.
"In the year 2000, when they look back at this age," he said, "they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction."
In fact, things have only recently begun moving. And what now passes for nanotechnology would not likely pass Feynman's muster. Rather than moving and placing individual cells, current applications call only for working with much larger clusters. Because it's still working on a very small scale -- a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter -- engineers began using the term to describe the products they were making, even thought they were using old technologies to make them. They did so at a time when "nanotech" became a buzzword that sold products.