The Nanotechnology Conferences

There was a nanotechnology conference in 1998. I realise what some may be saying to this. Either, ‘What nanotechnology conference in 1998?’, or ‘What is nanotechnology?’, or even ‘So what – that was ten years ago!’ At least at the time of writing this… Well, whatever – there was such a conference in 1998 and I decided to mention it as there was a similar conference much more recent to this one in June 2003 held between members of the European Council – and so I ‘smelt a rat’ because frankly, I am certain that the general public at large did not know about either fixture. Back to 1998. The specific or actual title for this event was, ‘Second International conference on Integrated Micro-Nano Technology for Space Applications 1998’. techpiled

The FIRST conference was apparently in 1995! Intrigued? Surprised? I certainly was. Nothing was said on U.K television at least… One may ask, ‘why write about this’? Well, this recent area of technology is of considerable importance, or at least it soon will be (especially in light of the more recent EC conference on nanotech’), due to the very ‘nature’ of the subject itself and what it will mean not too far from now. Though as it is already 2008, some of what follows may already be in prototype stage.

This is probable fact, it is not scare scaremongering. But, what is Nanotechnology and Micro-technology (?), irrespective of these or any such conferences. Each in turn, for the two disciplines, though very closely related, are not exactly the same thing – or one and the same, at least in terms of size. Nanotechnology is concerned with the concept of ‘smart’ materials and even semi-autonomous machines or devices, ranging in size from something like an ANT, to near molecular dimensions – small enough to go into a hairline crack in a skirting-board, or to be injected into a living host respectively. Micro-technology however, is concerned with ‘things’ ranging in size from that of an ant to that of a small caterpillar or millipede. The ‘infrastructure’ for nanotechnology and micro-technology is already fairly established – and one of the very first (if not the first) ‘micro-nano bots’ was seen going across our television screens for a few brief seconds, circa 1987-88 (I forget the exact year, but remember seeing it in the late 1980’s). This particular ‘thing’ strongly resembled, and was about the same size as one of those very small hair-clips, only on four tiny ‘legs’. Some sort of ‘synthesis’ between a very small microprocessor and the memory-metal that it was made of, enabled it to move of its’ own accord. But that was the late 80’s – and this is 2003! The ‘speed’ at which micro/nano-technology has developed over the last decade or more since then, is on par with the development of the microprocessor itself during the decade or so before that. realisticmag

Practical experiments/prototypes have included ‘devices’ that can be placed within the smallest areas or confines, such as minute cavities in walls, or cracks in pipelines or cable-ducts (for micro-technology) – and for nanotechnology, ‘devices’ small enough to be implanted into a living organism – the human body for instance. The implications of this will be considerable – it is their small/minute size that makes them powerful. Imagine an army of ‘titanium-steel silverfish’, or a synthetic ‘germ colony’ that could be controlled at will; either directly through a hand-held radio-control unit, or indirectly via a program stored on a ‘remote’ computer that ‘instructs’ the micro/nano-bots what to do (also by radio-control/telemetry). urbanclutch

These are currently (at the time of writing this) the limitations of nano and micro-technology. Because of the sizes involved, all-in-one ‘on board’ designs are not yet possible – and so they are not yet capable of fully autonomous operation. But this will undoubtedly change.

It won’t be long before we do have micro-controllers (essentially complete computers-on-a chip with memory and everything that have been around since the 1980’s; as opposed to ‘ordinary’ microprocessors/cpu-chips) small enough to fit onto devices of such size (the smallest one’s are in the area of; although this would already fit into a micro-device the size of say a large caterpillar) – and subsequently micro-bots (if not perhaps nano-bots) that ARE fully autonomous and therefore independent of any host system.

This would mean that your synthetic germ-colony could instruct itself to lie dormant for any period of time and to then ‘awaken’ and perform whatever at a pre-programmed date… Various scientific institutions around the world have already created working micro-robot (and even some nano-robot) experiments, including devices that can crawl, burrow, go across or under water and even one’s that can fly! These developments in both micro and nano-technology have drawn great interest from both public and private concerns (government departments and private corporations). This includes the ‘space race’ authorities that have been quick to realise (in theory at least) both the cost-saving benefits and operational benefits of such devices, especially in maintenance roles – hence the ‘First International Conference on Integrated Micro-Nano Technology for Space Applications’ in 1995 (!) – and subsequently the second one of 1998!! The home-page of the website that I visited quite by chance upon a visit to Hove library in 2001 was entitled, ‘NanoSpace 98 – to the planets and beyond…’ subtitled – ‘Call for papers.’ This is the truth! I know this sounds ‘unreal’, but there you have it. thekayelist

The overall aim of this conference was to continue the revolution in the development of space technology or hardware through a combination of nano-electronics, nano-scale disciplines and Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) for, or as the ‘building-blocks’ of Application Specific Integrated Micro-instruments – or ASIM’s.

International experts in these fields were brought together to determine or ascertain how they could be best applied to space exploration – and to explore the various aspects (hardware, software, protocol, etc) for both unmanned and manned space missions/activities yet to come. The conference was organised by CNST – Centre for Nano Space Technologies, which is a division of the ‘Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research (IAIR) based in Houston, Texas – and was sponsored by NASA (!) and SAIC – the Science Applications International Corporation. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but this really, really is the truth).

This conference was a serious business. It was not a bogus or superficial event. Organisations like NASA and SAIC would never have put them selves forward to the level that they did if it was. The concept of ‘smart machines’ that could ‘investigate’ anything, anywhere and operate like any ‘full sized’ machine, but at micro and even nano scales, was a proposition too good to miss. Because for nearly every form of full-sized robot/device, there is already a prototype equivalent at micro-technology proportions and probably will be at nano proportions relatively soon (again; micro-tech’ = ant size to small caterpillar size, nano-tech’ = near microscopic size to near molecular size).

For instance, a typical spot-welding robot in a car assembly plant is about five feet tall and six feet long at the armature and the same thing at micro-tech’ scale approximately one cubic centimetre (overall occupied space). It rotates, it pivots and it welds! The average submarine is forty-feet long and can enter a harbour or a large underground cave. There are micro-technology scale/sized submarines three centimetres long and one centimetre wide that can similarly navigate rock-pools and enter cavities in large boulders, or enter the gap between the outer and inner casings of an underwater pipeline to extract/extricate some small organism that has somehow burrowed through! In space exploration, the micro-welder could detect and repair mission-critical apparatus, whilst the ‘submarine’ could be used to inspect liquid carrying conduits or pipelines, such as for hydraulic equipment.

Most of this is probably hypothetical however. It is not yet certain, even by the space research/exploration people that will use the technology, precisely which micro-scale (MEMS) devices/applications, will be used for what purposes. But what is known for certain, are the specific areas that were covered at great lengths during the conference itself (in 1998).

Main objectives were disciplines for reducing systems costs, adding new capabilities and improving reliability. To identify mission applications and ‘enabling technologies’ for long-term goals. To hold ‘workshops’ for the exchange of information/procedures pertinent to space applications of these/those technologies.


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