There's nothing magically different about fullerenes or other nanomaterials. They're made of the same chemical elements as everyday objects, but are simply much, much smaller. So what makes them so powerful? Scientists have learned that when you start delving into the realm of the very, very small, things get a little weird. The properties of matter change. Gold turns red. Carbon can be shaped into hollow tubes that are stronger than steel but light, like plastic. Matthew Nordan is a venture capitalist who invests in nano-companies.
"So there are materials, for example, like aluminum which is inert when it's in a can, it won't explode or burn or anything else, behaves very differently when it's in very small particles. It will spontaneously react with air and can be used as a rocket fuel. It has nothing to do with what it's made out of, it has everything to do with how big it is. It just adds another dimension that scientists and engineers can exploit."
So how small is this newly exploitable dimension? Well, consider that nanometer measures just one billionth of a meter. In a Rice University laboratory, Eoghan Dillon struggles to explain how small these particles really are.
"If you imagine a human hair, you take a human hair and divide the width of it 80,000 times, that's how wide a nanotube is. It's very, very, very small."
Dillon researches carbon nanotubes. He's coating the tubes with chemicals, building tiny screens to cheaply capture carbon dioxide released by power plants.
(Lab machine noise)
That's a bath sonicator. It breaks up clumps of nanotubes, so they can be dissolved in water for experiments.
At a recent conference at Rice, venture capitalists talked about using nanotechnology to build artificial bones, target specific cancer cells, and manufacture ultralight carbon wires to carry power from wind farms to cities.
Here's Chris Coker, president of Oxane Materials, a nano-company based in the Heights.
"And these materials fascinated me. Unlike any other nano materials I had looked at they could be made in very large volume, with reliable quality, limited toxicity and moderate cost. And I thought there has to be something huge in that."
Oxane makes nano-scale ceramic balls that can be injected into rock to extract more natural gas. They weigh less and can reach farther into the earth than current technology. That means more gas, for less money.
Nano-particles are already being used in consumer products. Andrew Barron is the Rice professor who launched Oxane.
"Many of the things we buy today have nano materials in, but no one bothers to tell you they're nano. If you buy Dockers that are stain resistant, they have nano-polymer beads in them, that stop the stain sticking to your trousers. If you cut yourself and you go to the hospital and they give you a bandage, they are now impregnated with nano particles of silver, which is an antibacterial material."
The jury is still out on the toxicity of various nanoparticles. Many are safe if handled properly, but already there are concerns about the silver being put into socks and other antibacterial products. If the silver washes down the drain, it could contaminate the water supply. Watchdog groups are urging the federal government to increase the regulation of nanotechnology.
Dillon says there are some unknowns with nanotech, but the cutting-edge research is too exciting to resist.
"We all probably know we're taking a risk being in here, breathing this stuff in, you know? So we'll see somewhere down the line what happens. Everyone thought asbestos was safe. Not so much."