2011 was another big (or should that be small?) year for nanotech. In January, a team of Swiss researchers published a groundbreaking study. This revealed that Molybdenite – a mineral abundant in nature – could be 100,000 times more energy efficient than silicon transistors. It was also discovered to have better electrical properties than graphene. This material, which is also less voluminous than silicon, could have major potential in the fabrication of nanoelectronics, LEDs and solar cells.
A major breakthrough in nanomedicine was achieved by scientists in Canada. Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system, they successfully guided microcarriers loaded with an anti-cancer drug through the bloodstream of a rabbit – directly to a targeted area in the liver, where the drug was successfully administered.
Progress was also made in developing “lab-on-a-chip” technology. In the future, this will enable rapid, portable and ultra-sensitive diagnosis of diseases and other conditions. It could also have uses in monitoring and testing of the environment. One such device, being developed at the University of California, can detect blood components at a concentration of around 1 part per 40 billion, within 10 minutes. Benjamin Ross, a study co-author, commented: “Imagine if you had something as cheap and easy to use as a pregnancy test, but could quickly diagnose HIV and TB. That would be a real game-changer. It could save millions of lives.”
At the University of Michigan, scientists made biodegradable polymers that could self-assemble into hollow, nanofibre spheres. These were filled with cells and injected into wounds – forming a support structure for the cells as they grew. Once the cells were held in place, the spheres dissolved harmlessly. During testing, the nanofibre group regenerated three to four times more tissue than the control group. In the future, this new method could dramatically improve the healing of cartilage and joints, by enabling complex and oddly-shaped tissue defects to be corrected.
At UCLA, scientists used nanoscale capsules to release a protein directly into lung cancer tumors, stimulating the immune system and causing it to recognise and attack the cancerous cells, inhibiting their growth. So far, the nanocapsules have only been tested in mice, but human trials are expected within three years. This new method, if successful, could allow cancers to be detected and treated at much earlier stages.
At the University of Southern California, researchers developed a carbon nanotube synapse circuit whose behavior in tests reproduced the function of a neuron, the building block of the human brain. In the future, this could be used in brain prostheses – or even combined into a massive network to create the first fully synthetic brain.
At the US Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, researchers demonstrated the first true nano-scale waveguides for next generation optical communication systems. This holds potential for nano-scale photonic applications – such as intra-chip optical communication, signal modulation, nano-scale lasers and bio-medical sensing.
The DOE also funded a study with DARPA, in which scientists created a self-powering nano-device that harvested energy from vibrations (i.e. no batteries needed), while simultaneously transmitting data wirelessly over a range of 10 metres (33 ft). This technology could have major potential for devices ranging from airborne and stationary surveillance cameras, to wearable personal electronics, to implantable medical devices.
At Stanford University, researchers developed a new method of attaching nanowire electronics to the surface of any object, regardless of its shape or composition. The method could be used in making everything from wearable electronics and flexible displays to high-efficiency solar cells and ultra-sensitive biosensors.
Meanwhile, a new way of making battery electrodes was unveiled, based on nanostructured metal foams. In the future, this could lead to laptops that charge in a few minutes or cell phones that charge in 30 seconds.
At Tufts University in Massachusetts, researchers created the smallest electric motor ever devised – made from a single molecule. Electrons from a scanning tunnelling microscope were used to “drive” the directional motion of the molecule. A similar project – the world’s smallest electric car – was undertaken by Dutch scientists. Applications for molecular machines like these are probably some decades away, however.
British scientists made a nano-structure that multiplies stem cells used in therapies – a major step towards developing large-scale stem cell culture factories.
International researchers from the USA, Australia, Canada and South Korea used carbon nanotubes to create artificial muscles that could twist 1,000 times more than any similar material made in the past. This development could prove useful in future robotics and prosthetic limbs.
In Spain, researchers unveiled a process allowing complex shapes to be “carved” into nanoparticles, potentially revolutionising medical tests and drug treatments.
In Switzerland, researchers developed magnetic nanoparticles to remove harmful substances from the bloodstream. If successful, this method could be used to easily treat people suffering from drug intoxication, bloodstream infections, and certain cancers.
Meanwhile, German researchers demonstrated a graphene-based transistor array that is compatible with living biological cells and records the electrical signals they generate. This could lead to implantable “bio-electronics” which compensate for neural damage in the brain, eye, or ear.
As mentioned in Part 2, Intel unveiled its next generation of microprocessor technology, Ivy Bridge. These upcoming chips will be the first to use a 22 nanometre manufacturing process.
Society & demographics
Arguably the biggest demographic “event” of 2011 happened on 31st October. The UN selected this as a symbolic date when the global population officially reached seven billion. The actual date and time of this milestone can’t be known for sure, however. The US Census Bureau, for example, has forecasted it for March 2012. Whatever the case, it is clear that humanity’s population continues to mushroom and is on course to reach over 9 billion by 2050.
How many people the world can sustain in the future will depend on the willingness of nations to cooperate in the face of growing resource shortages and accelerating environmental decline. Though technological advances could provide solutions to many problems, they will not always be politically or financially possible.
The fastest growing countries remain those in parts of Africa and the Middle East. On current trends, Nigeria’s population will soar from 167 million in 2011 to almost 730 million by 2100. The slowest growing regions are Russia and Eastern Europe, where some populations are actually declining.
China is facing pressure to alter its one-child policy. Experts warn that the country’s population is becoming dangerously unbalanced, with too few adults of working age supporting too many elders. Japan is experiencing a similar trend.
The Muslim population continues to grow rapidly. A study published by the Pew Research Center revealed that, on current trends, it is expected to increase by around 35% in the next 20 years – rising from 1.6 billion in 2011 to 2.2 billion by 2030.
Life expectancy continues to climb – driven by medical advances and rising living standards. The latest available figures from the World Health Organisation show that global average life expectancy is around 66 for men and 71 for women. Japan continues to lead, with 80 for men and 86 for women. Some countries have significant regional divides. In the UK, for example, men in London live up to 14 years longer than those in Glasgow.
2011 saw the number of married adults in the US hit a record low, according to a Pew survey. Just 51% of adults over 18 are married, compared with 72% in 1960. The median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7).
Another study by Pew highlights a substantial generational divide in economic well-being. During the last quarter-century, US adults over 65 saw their net worth rise by 42%, while those under 35 saw theirs plummet by 68%.
A record-low 11% of Americans are satisfied with the job Congress is doing, according to a Gallup poll. In Europe, a median of 36% across 27 EU member states are confident in their government. Confidence appears to be lowest in southern and eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, Greeks are the least hopeful among all EU members, with just 2% saying their local economy is getting better.