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January 11, 2008, 7:57 am

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Basic Nanotechnology Primer


Nano-technology - Not Sufficiently Advanced, as per the Arthur C. Clarke gold standard of sufficiently advanced technology.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 
I’d like to take this time to lay out some basic guidelines on the modern understanding of the nano-scale world, with the intent being to allow for more conceivably accurate usage of this category of technology in our newly appearing science fiction technology. This is not intended as a limitation, however, it is my feeling that one of the strong points of science fiction is that it does NOT have sufficiently advanced technology, except where absolutely necessary, and is thus easily within the grasp of a fertile imagination.  
Let us begin with:
What is Nano-technology? While there is no official definition, there are several thresholds that may serve as such depending on the application. Most generally, however, nanotechnology is used to describe the deliberate creation of devices and material formation beneath the scale of 100 nanometers(nm). While largely arbitrary, it provides a good place to begin. How large is 100 nm - Pretty Bloody Small. A human hair is roughly 600-1200 times as wide. 100 nm is small enough that we can start counting meaningful numbers of atoms within its 3d volume. It is one thousand hydrogen atoms laid perfectly end to end.  At this scale, many things change. In the case of the individual particle, quantum physics becomes meaningful. At the bottom end of the scale, quantum physics and molecular chemistry can be expected to be absolutely dominate. Particles of this size do not stand still. They do not, technically, have positions, only probabilities. Momentum and energy remain conserved, but in ways that are unexpected and non-trivial.   
While there are many, many potentially interesting applications of nanoscale technology, I will address only a few of the most immediately interesting: Nano-materials, and nano-machines.
First, I will address the nanomaterial. Again, while there is no strict definition, nanomaterials are generally considered those materials which have a ‘grain size’1 of under 100 nm. Alternatively, the name can also be applied to any material where the grain size is small enough that the grain boundaries are able to make significant contributions to the behavior of the material. There are many hundreds of ways that these can be produced, from complex chemical reactions to plain old milling and grinding, creating powders of metal and ceramics to be shaped and carefully sintered like clay pots, to taking a pre-existing piece and working it to insanity, but the upshot is that both nanopowders and consolidated nanomaterials have properties that are only hinted at in their macro and microscale counterparts. They are harder and tougher, and display strange and bizarre thermal and electrical properties. Conductors become insulators… or super conductors. Catalysts become a thousand times more potent. As a bonus, metal powders become flammable, often explosively so. Nano-alloys then represent a whole new class of materials available for usage in sci-fi settings, a way to drive the materials of now into whole new categories of useful.
I shall then turn to the nano-machine, also periodically referred to as the ‘nanite’ in pieces of fiction. Unfortunately, the majority of fictional nanite applications are difficult to impossible to achieve under our current understanding of physics. These nanites are expected to be von Neumann machines, capable of self replication. They are expected to perform complex actions using a ‘group mind’ and a small handful, at most, of different types of nanites. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has already had her crack at CHON based nanites. On their own, they are neither capable of self reproduction, nor are they capable of working together to communicate. You know these basic, nature-provided nanites as ‘viruses’.

Raising higher on the scale of complexity, we find the most basic of cells. We find that, again, they have surprisingly little interaction with their environment, but that our basic needs are met. The cellular-machine is capable of self-reproduction, through primarily chemical interactions. So must our nanite be. It performs a small number of, again, chemical interactions with the environment. Perhaps it is able to self-motivate. But it is ‘dumb’. It does not have a group purpose, nor the ability to work in concert.

Rising once more on Nature’s scale, we find more complex cells, which are uniformly larger than their simple counterparts. These cells are large enough and complex enough that they have micro-biomachines within them, energy storage devices, and so on. Here is a scale which begins to become useful, but we must again carefully consider the nature of the actions that an individual cell can take, and consider that our ‘nanite’ is most likely to be little more than an exceptionally sturdy cell. It is highly efficient, having none of the evolutionary hodgepodge of discarded junk. Where possible, it is made of sturdier, stronger things. An individual device may be capable of slightly more complex actions. An individual nanite may be able, for example, to act as an artificial white blood cell, using the body’s own identification signals for search and destroy. It may be able to bind specific toxins and remove them from the body system. Another nanite may be able to make certain specific kinds of other nanites, though slowly.

Many traditional engineering solutions are not effective at this scale, however. Momentum at this scale is quickly and easily over powered by the thermal vibration of the object.   Simple electronic and optronic devices fail under quantum effects, and require either a minimum size of approximately 20 nm per trace, or shielding made of quantum handwavium. Energy storage is most likely to be chemical in nature, or else generated as needed by a variant of a Feynman ratchet - A thought experiment device that taps local thermal vibration for energy. Solar energy may also be feasible, through a photo-synthesis like process.

The easiest ‘gut check’ for the ability of a nanite is this: ‘Can I envision a single cell doing an activity this big?’ If the answer is yes, then go for it. 

1: The ‘grain size’ of a material refers, in general usage, to the arithmetic mean of the size of the individual crystals that make up a metal or ceramic.

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Comments ( 13 )
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August 7, 2007, 11:37
Point Taken.
Voted valadaar
August 7, 2007, 11:56
How is this worse then Siren's 4129?
Perhaps some specific citations are needed.
Voted Cheka Man
August 7, 2007, 13:02
Only voted
August 7, 2007, 14:27
When I completed reading it the first time, my first impression was, that it is too short. Reconsidering it, it is not _that_ short, and contains useful parts. Go figure. :)

But let's look first at the comments of others. The appeal to originality, and the unclear sentence seem to me as misunderstanding of author's intent (and I seriously hope here that I am reading his thoughts correctly here ;) ).

That sufficiently advanced technology is like magic is well known since Clarke at least. The mentioned sentence calls back upon the quote, and notes the Science Fiction doesn't need to resort to the magical, but it should be able to explain how things work, well, on the surface at least.
"How does it work?"
"Ah, okay."

Of course it is a personal preference, but I admit to like the aspiration, because for its user it will be easier to figure out what the technology can actually do, and what its boundaries are.

Looking at the article in this way, it may contain some quotes from an encyclopedia, but it selects the uses carefully, and hints at other uses - and so contains original work. It could be likened to a school of magic researched on a real-world analog, and taken from a particular angle.

I shall take a closer look at the science here in a later comment. I can only note now that more examples would make the article more interesting, and make the criminal charges raised here ;) harder to defend.
Siren no Orakio
August 7, 2007, 17:40
The point of posting here, so far as I understand, is to share all the resources needed to build a breathing, fictional world. Manfred is bang on with my intent. This is not something you can and should plug and chug into your world. Instead, I have done my best to give you some of the tools and guidelines that I use when I write sci-fi involving this particular field of science. (And, indeed, the same tools and thoughts I must use when I do real research in the field, as well. More than a little bit of this, you won't get citations for, because I wasn't permitted to officially publish.)

Valadaar - Sci-fi is all about pushing the envelope. But to push that envelope, the writer must know where the boundaries are, and why they exist. If he does not know where they are, then he has a handful of handwavium, or perhaps an enchanted wand. The ideal Science Fiction writer takes what is and pushes it to what could be, in creating his setting. That setting is then used to enable one of the classical conflicts. The better he knows his setting, the less handwavium he's used, the more intricate and believable that enabling can be, requiring less and less suspension of disbelief from the reader. The world becomes more real for the reader. It is like the difference between low resolution and high resolution pictures.

An example: Thanks to Michelson and Morely and high school science classes, we have all been disabused of the notion of the luminiferous ether. Because of this, when we think of starships, we no longer think of ships sailing the oceans of the stars, driven by vast ether-propellers, powered by the focused rays of the sun, boiling steam. Instead, we think of tremendous rocketships and the sleek warp-nacelles of the NCC-1701, because we have become familiar with the possibility of these things. We have no reason in the backs of our minds to deny the right of the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon to exist.

Blah, perhaps I am being a jerk, too. I dunno.
August 9, 2007, 15:08
Sigh, I thought we had gotten over this.

Scras, there are times and places for good solid information. The way most people use nano technology is akin to thaumaturgy. It is all about the "handwavium" and "bullshittium" and processes that defy every law of physics - in science fiction.

I want you to think about someone who writes a submission about a breed of horse, that without magic, can sustain 80 MPHs for 20 miles.

Scras would have a fit, though he might write the response nicely. Others of us who understand biology might say similar things. Reality says, *cue buzzer noise*. This is an article for the same purpose.

This is a reality check, showing what the "real world limits" of nanotechnology really are. If you honestly want to use some science in your science fiction or science fantasy, here you go. If you want to use "handwavium" and "bullshitium" and processes that completely defy the universe as we know it, then just say it "magic", then feel feel to ignore the article.

This is an article, plain and simple, written by a member with knowledge on the subject. Yes folks, he is a scientist and does work with such materials. This would be the same as Scras writing on Horses, me writing on magik or economics, some of our SCA fighter types writing on weapons/ armor, our computer users writing on hacking/ programming, or a few others writing in their specialty.

Encyclopedia-esk articles are useful, especially for people who don't know (or only think they know) something about the subject. It is good to know how things are done and why things are done and a few of the details of things.

Captain Penguins rant, the one you quoted by the way, is only part of a complaint that non fiction submissions (or things that we did not write completely on our own) that were not homemade were getting higher ratings than his "homemade" submissions. It was all about that things that spring out of your head are automatically better than things that don't.

To that I told him, not all homemade cookies are better than store bought cookies. And that if he had a complaint about something's ratings, then why wasn't he voting on them (and giving them the 1 he wanted to).

And this is a home made cookie by the way.

We should be rating this on usefulness in a game setting. Discussions like this, and like CP's rant, should be being dealt with in the Administrator forum, NOT ON SUBMISSIONS.

Oh and Did anyone bag on the ceramics or hawking? They are encyclopedic articles too, and that sucker took me a while to edit and write.
Voted MoonHunter
August 9, 2007, 15:20
All that, and I forgot to vote.

It is a useful article.
Voted Scrasamax
August 9, 2007, 15:44
Only voted
Voted Wulfhere
August 9, 2007, 17:44
I disagree with the critiques offered above. While I don't have a whole lot of interest in subs that are simply cut and pasted from other sources, this essay shows good research and editing, not simple collection of facts. It is a work of creative effort, a foundation upon which others can build.

The information is well-presented and makes a potentially difficult subject understandable. It presents a basis for others to launch their creative endeavors, a role which it fulfills well.
August 9, 2007, 19:25
Admin note
And simple cut and pastes from other sources, that were not cited are bad.

If a submission borrows heavily from another block of text, then it should be edited and made the author's own. You know folks, just like we did in school.
Voted manfred
August 9, 2007, 18:28
A bunch of rants later, I can return to the science part. :)

It is heavy lecture, but very enjoyable. The analog to the organic nanites is a useful one, and one I didn't quite realized before. Clueless as I am on the field, I do not think nanomachines need to be as complex as cells or viruses, at least the simpler ones. Unless they have to to actually multiply (or self-repair), the DNA or RNA can be ditched, and much more. Of course, when a similar robustness as that of life is required, you are most probably right - it won't be easier. So they will be like cells; though they could be of different materials, and will typically have different purposes.

Which now poses an interesting question I didn't realized as well: how will life interact with nanomachines? Once they are not unnoticeably smaller than it, the microscopic biota will react on them. Wouldn't it suck if some bacteria ate them?

Seems the choice of material will be quite important... and that self-defense techniques may be necessary for those nanites. ;)

A solid resource!
Voted Murometz
August 9, 2007, 19:25
my two cents on the mini-debate:

Normally, I would rather see creative inventions of the mind, as opposed to hard-core informational text, much like CP and Scras.


This is different.

1. It takes a complicated subject and makes it readable and downright entertaining

2. For someone like me, who loves Sci-Fi, but is clueless on stuff like this (nanotechnology), it REALLY helps! In lieu of researching stuff on google myself for 10 hours, I can simply read this article.

3. This is a game resource. It helps GMs and players.

4. This is no different than an article on swords, falconry, summoning, food, etc...

5. Its a 'primer' as its title suggests. Its not a laborious, rambling, scientific expose. Its something a GM can refer to in a sec, while running a game where nano matters.

6. And this is a key one...Siren is an expert on the subject. That makes all the difference in the world.

As to the article itself, good job, Siren. anytime you want to teach us luddites (me) science, I'm up for it!
Voted epsilon
August 9, 2007, 19:49
As I mentioned elsewhere.A good job regurgitating science into something writers/gamers can use.


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