Whilst the nanotechnology ‘project’ is almost 50 years old (outlined by the physics Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, in 1959; theorised by the Japanese, Norio Taniguchi, in1974 and popularised by the scientist-activist, Eric Drexler, in 1980), the priming required for it to become a reality was not possible until the eighties when tunnel microscopes and atomic power microscopes were created (IBM). These tools allowed material to be observed and worked on at the nanometre scale (a billionth of a metre), at the level of nanoparticles, in almost every field of human activity.
Nanotechnologies provide first and foremost new materials that have unheard of strength, conductivity, elasticity, lightness, density or react in very specific ways to other substances. These materials can be used on their own, in combination with traditional materials (concrete, plastic…) or in association with electronic devices or living cells. Amongst their main fields of current application, we can cite medicine, information technology, energy and environment, and military applications. Their potential use in large scale mass production is usually considered to be realist within 10, or even 20, years.
There are many products today that incorporate nanotechnologies: more reactive and longer-lasting tennis rackets and balls, more protective and resistant sun protection creams, crease proof fabrics and wall coverings that repel water and dust, scratch-proof sunglasses, and several electronic and computer products. Medial applications, which are more experimental, have already reduced malignant tumours or helped disabled people recover the use of a damaged organ. However, some of the more ambitious plans, especially those related to ‘molecular assembly’, which involves large scale production of materials or objects from basic molecules, are in the far distance or even uncertain. We are currently more or less at an amateur stage. In short, nanotechnologies are simultaneously at the fundamental research stage and the development stage for first applications. The line is quickly crossed between speculation and investment, from theory to practice, from experiment to market – which creates the sensation of a scientific and creative melting pot whilst sometimes making us think of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’.