Smart dust refers to a network of wireless, autonomously-acting microscopic devices. Built with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and using molecular manufacturing processes, these devices would act as sensors, detecting anything from light and vibrations to chemicals and pathogens, and communicating the information over long distances.
Microscopic devices such as this are still hypothetical, and the only place smart dust can be found is within the pages of science fiction novels. (For example, Michael Crichton’s Prey, published in 2002, is based on the idea of the emergence of organised behaviour in swarms of self-replicating nanomachines which undergo random and rapid mutations.)
With the rapid pace of technological advances, the development of such devices is getting closer. This week, two separate groups report devices which would prove very useful for the development of smart dust: researchers from the University of California, Irvine, report that they have developed a radio using carbon nanotubes, and a team of chemists from Harvard report that they have used nanotubes as solar-powered cells.