In Nanoparticular Order

microscopy work

I can still remember my first printer, eagerly jacked into my Atari 800XL, one of those horrible thermal paper jobs, long paper roll spooled and shiny where every document is coiled like the original manuscript of On the Road. No matter how fresh the imprint, it always looked like a twice-used carbon copy, without the advantage of being flat.

The first time I saw an industrial sized engineering printer I was utterly flabbergasted. It was in Troy, NY, home of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and I had just driven up with a friend of mine to help him move into his new college home. The thing was just enormous and looked as though it could print a document about as wide and tall as Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building. This was many years before the first building façade-sized advertisements, which only compounded the printer’s exotic nature. All I could think about was printing a map to scale, where 1 mile = 1 mile.

Printers of course continued to evolve, and I am still teary-eyed when I watch a laser printer fulfill my request for a 200 page document in under two minutes. Who could imagine (or even need) such a thing? How the heck does it grip and roll the blank papers so seamlessly, when sometimes it takes me several seconds to separate two sheets of new paper? What exactly is in that block of powdered toner that doesn’t appear to smear? No less marvelous than watching someone cast wingardium leviosa, it would seem to me.

As a bookseller, we always dreamed of instant access to even the most obscure titles, customer orders met with nary a thought for print status, cost or delivery. As I noted after attending BookExpo this past summer, one of the most promising emerging technological innovations is the capability to provide on-site print-on-demand titles, as I witnessed at the Espresso Book Machine display table; a dream to be realized once the Gordian knot of copyright is unwound, that is. You can check out one of these $50,000 trinkets by visiting the New York Public Library of Science, Industry and Business, or just by clicking over to this Engadget article for a sneak peek.

Somehow, though, this isn’t the most exciting advance in print technology. For many years, or at least since my subscription to Omni Magazine in 1987 and 88, I have dreamed of a printer that could give me more than the printed word. Something more than a simple facsimile, a print of a photograph, or the teasing illusion of a lenticular postcard.

Little Dancer 3-D lenticular postcard from Lantor Limited

Earlier this year, technicians from the Tissue Engineering Department from the University of Tokyo Hospital have fabricated some artificial bones with an inkjet printer.

Strong, lightweight and porous, the printed bones have characteristics similar to natural bone, and because they are tailored to fit exactly where they need to go, they are quick to integrate with the surrounding bone. The printed bone is also designed to be reabsorbed by the body as the surrounding bone slowly grows into it and replaces it.

(from Pink Tentacle)

Originally imagined for technical modeling projects, 3-D printing is potentially going to revolutionize every corner of our lives. From pharmacology, biotech, reproduction, surgery, entertainment, housing, toxicological clean-up, systems forecasting, decoration, clothing and real-world user interfaces, there is little limit to its potential reach. Especially as we further quantify the core holistic inter-relationships between elements, molecules and the like, and refine the development of nanoparticulate matter. As long as we can figure out how to prevent nanomatter from casually penetrating traditional organic barriers… There’s already several nanoparticle products on the market, so let’s hope more money is diverted into research & development soon. We don’t need another Bhopal sized disaster to wake us up, I hope.

It’s ironic that I mentioned RPI. A quick glance at their home page shows not only their development of a rechargeable nanoengineered battery which is indistinguishable from a tiny sheet of black paper, but they also provide a link to a fascinating Business Week article from August 9th which talks about RPI’s innovative nanotech non-reflective coating “that reflects virtually no light;” truly an age-old dream of military commanders, and if practical will likely be purchased by the tonne by the global military hegemony to improve its murderous efficiency.

As with any unprecedented scientific advance, the implications are staggering. In truth, we’ll likely spend much of our time downloading 3-D specs for collectible vinyl figurines, cheap psychotropics from Mexico, or just limited-edition R. Kelly toe rings for fabrication by our personal nanoprinters. But please, a Robot can dream…


image adapted from free wallpaper, tmsuk

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