Nanotechnology - A Historical Perspective


In 1867, James Clerk Maxwell suggested the use of small machines to defy thermodynamics' second rule, which says that the entropy of a closed system cannot decrease. 

According to this rule, heat must travel from hot to cold, preventing the construction of a perpetual motion machine. 

Maxwell's devil is a gedanken experiment that includes a machine (or demon) protecting a small opening between two gas reservoirs at the same temperature. 

The devil can determine the speed of individual molecules and allow only the fastest to pass, resulting in a temperature differential between the two reservoirs without requiring any effort. 

Maxwell's demon is unlikely to succeed since the second rule of thermodynamics has survived the test of time, but it is interesting to discover that molecular-level sensing and manipulation concepts were imagined more than 150 years ago. 

More recently, in a 1959 lecture to the American Physical Society titled “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” physicist Richard Feynman alluded to the possibility of having miniaturized devices, made of a small number of atoms and working in compact spaces, for exploiting specific effects unique to their size and shape to control synthetic chemical reactions and produce useful products. 

Humans have used the interaction of light with nanoparticles without knowing the physics underlying it, according to historical data. 

The Lycurgus Cup, illustrated in Figure, is an interesting example. 

It is believed to have been created in the fourth century by Roman artisans. 

The cup is made of glass with gold and silver nanoparticles implanted in it, and it has a color-changing feature that allows it to take on various colors depending on the light source. 

When seen in reflected light, it looks jade-green. 

From the outside, however, the cup looks translucent-red when light is shined into it. 

The ruby-red and deep-yellow hues of the second item in Figure, a stained-glass window at Lancaster Cathedral depicting Edmund and Thomas of Canterbury, are created by trapped gold and silver nanoparticles in the glass. 

Modern theories on plasmon production may explain these visual phenomena, but how ancient blacksmiths understood the exact material characteristics and compositions to achieve them in reality remains a mystery. 

Regardless of contemporary advancements that enable humans to harness the power of nanotechnology, natural processes have skillfully used nanotechnology effects for billions of years. 

Examples include collecting solar energy via photosynthesis, precise replication of the DNA structure, and DNA repair caused by endogenous or external causes. 

The primary goal of nanoscience is to discover such phenomena that are unique to the nanoscale. 

Nanotechnology, which helps society via particular applications such as longer-lasting tennis balls, more efficient solar cells, and cleaner diesel engines, is based on theoretical know-how and understanding gained through nanoscience. 

However, there are numerous examples from prehistoric times to the present day where the application of a technology preceded the underlying science; practitioners were unaware of the reasons for strange behavior they observed in materials and devices that were very different from familiar individual atoms, molecules, and bulk matter, but continued to use them in applications – a model that modern engineers and scientists appear to be following. 

~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

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