The Nanoworld

Henrique E. Toma

Discover the fascinating nanoworld and find that the most modern machinery is now the size of a molecule!

Science and Technology are increasingly part of our daily life. Nanoparticles will make plastics and glass more resistant and functional. Clinical diagnosis will be made with a small chip. Drugs will be programmed to hone in directly on their targets. Windows will be smart; they will be self-cleaning and have adjustable tints. Silent fuel cells will move our cars. This is not a dream! This is a revolution starting now with the Nanotechnology Era. Nanotechnology was one of the main issues discussed at the 56th Annual Meeting of the SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science). According to the Minister of Science and Technology, “We calculate that in fifteen years Nanotechnology will be generating business to the value of US$ 1 trillion annually”.

This is the first book of the Inventing the Future Series, which will give an overview of the developments and challenges to be faced by the different areas of modern Science and Technology. The books in this series show how the fascinating world of science goes far beyond our imagination.

Original title
O Mundo Nanométrico: A Dimensão do Novo Século
Year of publication

About the authors

Henrique E. Toma

Henrique E. Toma is a professor in the Institute of Chemistry at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a level 1A CNPq researcher. He´s had about 250 articles published in international journals, and up to date has been cited more than 3000 times. Professor Toma has supervised 45 masters and doctoral theses. Among the awards he´s been given for his outstanding work are the Heinrich Rheinboldt Award (1987), the USP Award (1993), the TWAS - Chemistry Prize (1996), the Simon Mathias Medal (1997), the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Memoriam (1999), the Fritz Feigl Award (2001) and the Commendation of the Brazilian National Order for Scientific Merit (2002). He has a chair at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, at the Academy of Sciences of the State of Sao Paulo and at the Third World Academy of Sciences.

Author's CV.

1   Journey to the Nanoworld

2   Biological nanomachines

3   The architects of molecules

4   Energy production

5   Challenges of molecular electronics

6   The new Gold rush

7   Chat with the author


If you are reading this book is quite possible that at some point you've asked yourself what the world is made of. Maybe you still wonder "How did this world come to be?" You will hardly find anything more interesting in this world than yourself. After all, you live with yourself all your life. What are you made of? How did you come to be? These questions have long existed and, oddly enough, we are still trying to find the answer.
You know you have a brain, your brain is made up of cells called neurons and such neurons allow you to understand what you are reading now. But neither you nor anyone else knows exactly how it happens. Neurons, in turn, consist of massive molecules aggregates that are able to interact amongst themselves, produce and consume energy, synthesize and decompose other molecules, to function as real engines and transport molecules within the cell; to create and respond to electrical stimuli, to communicate chemically and electrically with other neurons - in short, to create a dynamic system of extraordinary complexity.
Take an ordinary act of your everyday life: recognizing a friend, for instance. Recognizing a familiar face requires the brain to process the light signals in your retina, turn them into electrical and chemical nerve impulses from the retina to your cerebral cortex then confront (nobody knows how) these nerve impulses with others which distinguish the information stored in your memory as the face of a particular friend from many other acquaintances. That generates a whole spectrum of emotions, which in turn generate nerve impulses that convert muscular movements into a smile, a handshake, and so on - All of this in a split second, while you're very likely "multiprocessing" other information.
You also know that your neurons are molecules formed by atoms, which are formed by electrons, protons and neutrons, and those protons and neutrons are formed by quarks and gluons, which in turn ... well, we do not know. Do don´t even know what an electron is made out of! Is there any relationship between the submicroscopic structure of matter and the thoughts you are having right now? We do not know. But one thing we know. Without the stability of atoms, their ability to aggregate into molecules and the molecules ability to recognize each other you would not be here reading these words. Neither would I be here writing them down.
For atoms to be stable, they have to obey laws of nature we have learned to model and use, but we still do not understand. These laws are summarized by the term quantum electrodynamics. Too complicated? Not so much so. In two or three years in college you will learn what they are, how they work and how to use them. The same laws govern the chemical bonds that allow atoms to form molecules. Molecules are not as stable as atoms, they form and break down more easily (thanks for that, otherwise we wouldn´t be here also). These molecules are still able to form larger "supramolecular" aggregates with incredible properties, structures, and functions.
Think a little: you -your size and strength, emotions, memories, life projects, arose from the merger of two microscopic cells, each bringing a piece of genetic information in the form of two huge molecules that have to make up your unique DNA. Wait a minute! What's this "huge molecule"? Sure you know that atoms and molecules are small, so small that we must use the billionth of a meter - a nanometer - as a yardstick to measure them. Well, you have reason to complain of such expression. But it is not as pointless as it may seem at first. Do you know the length of your DNA molecule? Over a yard! As small as the atoms that make up a DNA may be, their number is so large (several billion) that if you could take each end of a DNA molecule and stretch it out completely, you would have to ask for help from a friend hold one of the ends because your arms would not be long enough. Isn´t it remarkable that this large molecule fits inside the nucleus of a cell you can only see through a microscope? And that it is so "smart" that is able to train your brain, your heart, your liver, your kidneys, your bones, and your muscles (to name some of your DNA skills). How can this be?
This book is an introduction to those issues that revolve around one thing altogether simple and complex: how can a molecule recognize another molecule? Molecular recognition is one of the most important conditions for extremely intelligent (like yourself), self-organized structures to be built from "dumb" atoms and molecules.
The key to completely solve these problems rests years ahead of us. But the learning curve begins with more simple things, which are happening now. Learning to control molecules is fun. Imagine being able to directly convert sunlight into electricity by means of a plastic film or a polymer ink you use to paint the walls of your home. Consider the realization of chemical changes important for generations and the use of clean energy, such as the sunlight and water to produce hydrogen. Consider even design and build a molecule that functions as a transistor for information processing (molecular electronics). We do not know if we can solve all these problems. However, that´s how scientific research is. Sometimes the outcome is as we´ve expected, sometimes it is not. The important thing is that in attempting to solve the problems we face now, we learn to better control the forces that govern the behavior of atoms and molecules. And the more we know about atoms and molecules the closer we are to understand how neurons work.
How to make molecules work for us is basically the theme of this book by Professor Henrique Toma, a leading Brazilian researcher in the area known as supramolecular chemistry. By reading this book, you will be connected to a person moved to curiosity, the most powerful force in scientific research. Ask questions and seek the knowledge to answer them, that´s how researchers work in an attempt to discover what the world is made of, how it made, and ultimately, how we were made and how we function.
I hope this book, a short introduction to the science and engineering of all things very small, which we conveniently have shortened to Nanotechnology, also arouses in you a curiosity to learn, and someday, contribute with your ideas and work to advance our knowledge about Nature.

Cylon G. Silva