Monday, September 20, 2010

Of Nanotechnology and Food Replacements

"Nanotechnology", as first defined in 1974 by Tokyo Science University Professor Norio Taniguchi, mainly consists of the separation, consolidation, deformation and processing of materials by one atom or by one molecule.

Rice University recently developed a nano-car, which was a single molecule "car" that uses fullerenes (molecules composed entirely of carbon) as wheels to determine how they move about on metal surfaces; specifically, whether they roll or slide. 
Chemical Structure of a nanocar. (Source: Wikipedia)
The concept of nanorobotics extended the topic of nanotechnology. Nanorobotics deals with creating working robots at the nanometer scale. One nanometer (nm) is one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter. To put that into perspective, the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the earth, or the amount a man's beard grows in the time it takes him to raise a razor to his face.

The scale is, indeed, microscopic. As such, scientists still had not developed a nanobot that functions on an entirely mechanical basis. Most of the prototypes are functional, but they are mostly or partially biological in nature. Speculative nanobots already have their possible future planned out for them. Since nanobots work on a molecular level, doctors and researches expect them to have a significant effect on brain research, cancer research and finding cures for difficult diseases. Their size would also assist greatly with such delicate procedures as repairing vein tissue and heart surgeries. Undoubtedly, such technology would prove extremely useful and help save millions of lives each year.

Robert Freitas, a pioneer in the field of nanomedicine, created a speculative design of a nanobot that would act as food replacement. The Futurist magazine spoke with him about his design:
"Here’s how these would work: the only reason people eat is to replace the energy they expend walking around, breathing, living life, etc. Like all creatures, we take energy stored in plant or animal matter. Freitas points out that the isotope gadolinium-148 could provide much of the fuel the body needs."
Gadolinium, as a free ion, is highly toxic but is regarded as safe when administered as a chelated (detoxified) compound.
"But a person can’t just eat a radioactive chemical and hope to be healthy, instead he or she would ingest the gadolinium in the form of nanorobots. The gadolinium-powered robots would make sure that the person’s body was absorbing the energy safely and consistently. Freitas says the person might still have to take some vitamin or protein supplements but because gadolinium has a half life of 75 years, the person might be able to go for a century or longer without a square meal."
Such an invention would make a significant impact on human evolution if it were to ever be administered, not to mention that it would take generations of gradual adaptation for this to work as Freitas imagines it. In Walter Miller Jr.'s science fiction story Crucifixus Etiam, the workers on Mars have surgically implanted tubes and valves that allow them to control their oxygen intake, allowing them to "breathe" outside without a mask. However, after years of adaptation, this resulted in them unlearning to breathe, and led to manual control of the oxygen intake. I can see a similar issue arising with this design.

Let's suppose we decide to adapt to this. In order for these nanobots to work as food replacement on that scale, the digestive system cannot be functional. Otherwise, the lack of food intake will result in ulcers and inevitable death.Granted, nanobots such as these may help supply nutrients to those who are allergic to certain products.While the nanobots may provide the energy and nutrients needed, they simply cannot replace food - not unless the biological structure of humans is completely revamped.
Are we willing to take this step towards placing our lives even more into the hands of technology?

With that in mind, perhaps medicine is where nanorobots belong and where they should stay.
That is your food for thought for now. Stay tuned!


1. Source: 2010 Solutions for a Better Future
                 by Patrick Tucker on December 30, 2009
2. Source: How Nanorobots Are Made
                 by clare on July 9, 2009

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