Nanotechnology promises powerful new applications for the Internet of Things

By now you probably know a little bit about nanotechnology and may have heard a thing or two about the Internet of Things (IoT). But have you thought about a combination of the two? Enter the Internet of Nanothings (IoNT).

Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field that is beginning to revolutionize everyday life. By manipulating incredibly tiny bits of matter (smaller than 100 nanometers), materials can be created with precise and unique qualities. To give a sense of scale, a strand of human DNA is roughly 2.5 nanometers in diameter. The US government is especially interested in nanotechnology because its applications are vast; seemingly disparate industries such as defense, healthcare, and textiles all benefit from the same discoveries. The U.S.’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) requested $1.5 billion in federal funding in fiscal year (FY) 2016 and has been awarded over $22 billion since FY 2001.

The Internet of Things is the network of objects that can send and receive data. This includes not only devices such cell phones and fitness trackers, but it also includes refrigerators and Boeing 787 engines. It’s likely that we’re only beginning to see the potential implications of the IoT. One day, our infrastructure as well as agricultural and medical devices may all have sensors that allow them to automatically report and respond to potentially devastating changes in their environment. It is these sensors that make a “thing” able to be part of the IoT.

Challenges of nanoscale devices

The nanoworld is a strange place where things happen much, much differently than at the macro (our normal) scale. For instance, what you typically think of as the properties of a material are really just an average of the properties of all of its components. Once you get down to the molecular level, the forces that affect individual atoms and molecules become more dominant. These quantum effects cause gold to be a liquid at room temperature, silicon (which is widely used as an semiconductor) to be a conductor, and many other effects to occur. These are some of the reasons why we can’t just shrink down regular sensors to the nanoscale and put them on nanodevices to make a network.

Two potential solutions to this problem include electromagnetic (EM) and molecular nanosensors. EM nanosensors detect changes in electromagnetic waves, taking quantum effects into account, while molecular nanosensors override functioning organic communication systems to carry a coded message. Both of these methods require much less energy than their larger counterparts; harvested mechanical energy from nanowire vibrations can power EM nanosensors, and environmental biochemicals can be used as fuel for molecular nanosensors. Both of these methods have their respective drawbacks, however. The major drawback with EM method is the noise and reduction of the EM wave due to absorption by surrounding molecules. With the molecular method, a big risk is losing data due to environmental effects such as motion or chemicals.

On a similar note, the Internet of Bio-Nanothings (IoBNT) further expands upon the IoNT by using biologically embedded computing devices. The advantage is that the devices are not artificial and should not negatively impact sensitive biological environments—such as cells—when deployed. A major challenge to developing the IoBNT is establishing a way to accurately translate the encoded information into the cyber domain. The IoBNT is still in theoretical research stages.

Applications of the Internet of Nanothings

These new possibilities are extensions of, not competitors to, the IoT. Some potential applications include in-body networks monitoring real-time blood, sickness, and breath tests. Nanosensors could be used in public locations to monitor the spread of viruses and diseases. Furthermore, these nanothings could easily be hooked up to wearable health and environmental trackers.

While the addition of nanotechnology and biotechnology to the IoT will likely offer much more control over otherwise unpredictable or uncontrollable parts of our lives, the security risks should never be downplayed. More research still needs to be done to evaluate the safety of nanotechnology, let alone the connection of these devices. Adding networks to nanotechnology, especially when embedded in a human, adds significant risk not only for malfunction but also for hacking. One of the four goals of the NNI is to “support responsible development of nanotechnology;” it is important that the possibility of networked nanotechnology be considered either as part of this goal or in a separate one.

It’s likely that the IoT will continue to slowly but surely evolve the way we interact with and understand both our environment and ourselves. The addition of nanotechnology will fill the gaps of the IoT, allowing us to have a more complete understanding and control of reality. These radical changes are likely far away, but it is certainly interesting to think about what is possible. It is also important to understand the legal and ethical implications of pursuing this path before we commit to undertake it.

Elsie Bjarnason contributed to this post.