When Thanos’ Child Ebony Maw came to Earth to collect the Time Stone in Avengers: Infinity War, we had the first chance to look at Tony Stark’s new and improved Iron Man armor – consisting of nanobots. Later, we’ve seen that Tony, magnanimous as he was, made a similar armor for his protégé Peter Parker, also known as the Spider-Man. Nanobots or nanites are a well-known and widely used trope in science-fiction and fantasy – we can meet them everywhere from the works of the “big names” of the genre (like Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke) to movies and TV series like Star Trek (think of the Borg) and the above-mentioned MCU movie. In them, nanobots can be a solution to every single disease and medical condition in the world or a tool of humanity’s destruction (like in Greg Bear’s novel Blood Music, for example).
But nanotechnology is no longer a matter reserved for science-fiction. Scientists are working on turning it into reality – and there are already several breakthroughs to report.
Tiny machines that heal
One of the most widely used tropes is that of the nanobot that sits inside the human body fixing every flaw that it might find. While we’re not quite there yet, we are making progress. The approaches differ: some think of nanites as tiny robots, others would rely on existing beings that could be implanted with technology. Devices like Xenobot, a new type of bio-robot developed by scientists at the University of Vermont represent a different, radical approach to the matter.
Nanobots would be incredibly useful in medicine, fixing conditions from the inside. They could aid recovery and treatment in cancer, boosting the immune system by hunting down harmful invaders of the body, maybe even perform surgeries while inside the body, thus eliminating the need for invasive and costly procedures.
Taking material sciences to a nanoscale (between 1 and 100 nanometers), many industries are now hoping to develop new materials with properties that can vastly improve their durability, flexibility (in some cases) and rigidity (in others). Nanomaterials have been around for quite some time – titanium dioxide, for example, used in white paint, is one example – but new ones are being developed as we speak.
Nanomaterials are – and will be – proving useful in several industries. In the automotive industry, nanomaterials are being used to reduce friction (and usage), improve the corrosion resistance and durability of various components, and to reduce fuel consumption, thus also contributing to the fight against climate change.
Nanomaterials are also used in medicine, less toxic than traditional materials, helping better fields ranging from optical imaging and MRI to drug delivery, allowing better, targeted treatments to be applied using nano-scaled carriers to deliver drugs right where they are needed.
The lower the scale of science, the more advanced its achievements are. The coming transition to the nanoscale will likely have fundamental effects on our lives. The days when a single injection of microscopic machines will heal every ailment imaginable may not come tomorrow – but they will definitely come.