Show of minuscule machinery points precise way to the future: Susan Watts reports on the pinhead-sized components which could revolutionise lives

AN EXHIBITION too small to see may seem a little pointless, but the Science Museum's latest venture celebrates a subject that could revolutionise people's lives.

'Nanotechnology', or engineering on the scale of a few millionths of a millimetre, is heralded as the field from which will spring the next generation of electronic components for ultra-fast computers, advances in medical technology, and miniature machines that can build smaller versions of themselves.

The prefix nano is derived from the Greek word for dwarf, and the minuscule objects on show have dimensions as small as those of the internal machinery of biological cells.

Some of the wilder speculation over the potential for this new field talks of machines small enough to slip inside the body. Tiny Rotovator-like devices injected into the bloodstream could scrape away at the furred-up lining of an artery, nanoenthusiasts claim.

This sort of application is years away, but consumer goods are starting to appear that include items made with the precision of nanoengineering. Examples include the tiny accelerometers inside airbags in cars, the holes inside bubble jet printers and pinhead-sized components inside video players.

Pinheads are common currency to nanotechnologists, who have modified the latest microscope technologies to etch all the words in the Encyclopaedia Britannica on to the head of a pin. They have also produced images showing individual atoms, and created new objects from scratch, atom-by-atom.

The Science Museum's new collection includes a tiny copy of the first Toyota car, less than 5 millimetres long, containing a working electric motor.

The advent of nanoengineering was foretold by the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in 1959. In a famous lecture, 'Plenty of Room at the Bottom', Professor Feynman offered two challenges, each with a dollars 1,000 prize. One was for the first microscope-readable book page shrunk 25,000 times. The other was for the first fully operational motor no bigger than a 1 64 in cube. The first took 25 years to fulfil, when a student at Stanford University in California shrank the first page of A Tale of Two Cities on to silicon. William McLellan, a 68-year- old engineer, rose to the second challenge in just over six months. Mr McLellan opened the exhibition in London yesterday.

He recalled his meeting with Professor Feynman, who had been inundated with crackpots bringing him motors the size of their fists. When he saw Mr McLellan clutching a microscope, the professor muttered 'uh-oh'.

Professor Feynman did not get the new technology he sought. The motor used existing engineering skills, though it represented the limits of old-style technology.

Progress now could be slowed down by tiny impurities clogging up the works of the small machines, Mr McLellan warned. 'There is certainly plenty of room at the bottom, but there's also plenty of dust and lint and dandruff too,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam