nano technologyPlastic printing technologies have recently been used to make cheap, flexible, lightweight light-emitting color displays—an ideal showcase for what organic electronics can do, and an application not diminished by their existing limitations. Electrons have so far only been made to flow in organics at speeds much slower than in silicon. They are far from being able to compute at the billions of digital calculations per second of which computer chips are capable. But to communicate with humans, none of this is necessary. Computer displays and video screens refresh their images perhaps seventy-five times per second. Existing organic semiconductors can readily operate at these modest speeds.

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Computers and medicineToday’s electronic chip—the heart and mind of the computer—is made by mass-producing and connecting millions of identical tiny building blocks known as transistors. These devices do the simplest of things to the smallest units of information: add, subtract, and negate bits. Combined, these simple elements become powerful, so flexible that fast math, rich and lifelike graphics, and interactive games—all these become possible.

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Viruses & Building materialsThe series of breakthroughs made by Angela Belcher—previously at the University of California at Santa Barbara and then the University of Texas at Austin, now at MIT—highlight the principles and process of biomimetics research. First learn Nature’s methods, then persuade her to manufacture new materials to order, organized from the bottom up.

In 1996, Belcher studied how Nature builds shell of the abalone, the strikingly sturdy structural material made from alternating crystal layers glued together: plywood on the nanoscale.

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Health ProtectionEnvironmental enforcement agencies need to sniff out threats to our natural world at the earliest opportunity. They need to make prospective polluters believe that they will not get away with excess: place a speed trap at every intersection. Military and security agencies are equally concerned with sensing what is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. They need to warn of dangerous chemicals at the most minuscule levels, before these toxins threaten health. Such sensing needs to be done early in time and remotely in space, giving us the chance to avoid danger.

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Diagnoses of Health problemEach of us has seen a friend or loved one die too young. We each know people whose enjoyment of life’s pleasures has been curtailed by sickness. Maybe we suffer this ourselves. In talking with family and friends, I’ve found that nanotechnology’s role in medicine is at the top of people’s minds. North America is investing $6 billion in science and engineering research in 2005 and over $30 billion in health research. Newspaper headlines tell the same story: cancer and osteoporosis are “cured” at least once a week on the front page of national newspapers.

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