It’s been a staple of movies, TV and games for more than a decade – but is nanotechnology IRL even remotely related to what we see in pop culture?
If you’re wondering why you’ve heard the name before, that’s probably because your favourite show is absolutely littered with the tech. Nanomachines, aka nanites, serves as a convenient explanation for Tony Stark’s current Iron Man armour, enabling it to sprout nano booster wings and fire nano projectiles, and even provided Stargate (the TV show) with its most memorable adversary: weaponized Nanites able to swarm and self-replicate, mercilessly hunting down anything without Ancient genes.
Yet, nowhere is nanotechnology more present than in the long-running Metal Gear Solid franchise. Over the course of nine games, this tiny tech is one of the few constants, and while at times outlandish, somehow, it only ever feels a couple of steps removed from reality. But how much of this is actually complete nonsense? We spoke to some experts, and it turns out, MGS’s applications of nanotechnology are actually eerily prescient.
Stick with us as we dig a little deeper into this aspect of the beloved stealth franchise, and the surprising realities it shines a spotlight on…
Huh, Metal Gear?!
Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima has always been hailed as a visionary when it comes to technology. Speaking at the Game Developers Conference in 2009, he espoused the idea of a ‘technology-driven’ approach to game creation – where software and hardware conspire to solve game design problems.
The original Metal Gear, released in 1987, was designed for the (ultimately doomed) Japanese MSX2 console standard. Kojima created his now famous ‘tactical stealth action’ gameplay, simply because the hardware didn’t have the chops to display multiple adversaries and traditional gunfire at the same time.
Fast forward to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008) and not only had hardware advances transformed gameplay beyond all recognition, but the mythology behind the series had similarly advanced, informed by real world science, with the field of nanotechnology offering particular inspiration. By MGS4, nanomachines are in common use to augment strength and endurance.
Indeed, most of the gadgets and gear used throughout the series have their roots in real world tech. For example, the wacky air-lift Fulton Recovery system (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain), is a fun variation of the Skyhook system, which has been in use by the American military since the early Sixties.
In MGS4, a control network dubbed Sons of the Patriots is basically a battleground arpanet, used to monitor and enhance soldiers in the field; nanomachines are injected directly into troops to regulate heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and other physiological factors.
This isn’t just a great game mcguffin, it’s very firmly anchored in tomorrow’s world.
Nano y Nano
Come 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, more advanced nanomachines not only administer medicine and vital nutrients, but even allow vital signs to be monitored remotely. MGS nanomachines can even replenish the battery of the CODEC, an internally embedded communication device. A bit of a stretch, even by video game standards?
Well, this is Metal Gear we’re talking about, but the concept of packaging hydrogen atoms in a nano-wrapper is actually entirely credible, and this could theoretically be used to provide power to adjacent nano-devices. Apparently, there’s nothing that nanotechnology can’t do.
OK, let’s explain what nanotech actually is, shall we? Nanotechnology involves objects and devices measured on a nano scale, infinitesimally small microscopic doodads able to rub shoulders with proteins, bacteria and so on. As fans will know, they’re largely used as a vessel for communication devices in the original MGS… so now over twenty years since Metal Gear Solid launched, where are they at today?
Dr Paul Kostek, Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and senior systems engineer for Base2 Solutions, says that while nanotechnologies are crazy small, its applications can be potentially huge. “Current nanotube applications can cover everything from filters to clean water to technologies which enhance and strengthen basic construction materials,” he told Fandom.
Surprisingly, nanoparticles are already used in a wide variety of everyday objects. The Lithium ion batteries used to power electric cars use nanoparticle-based electrodes. Even sports have benefited. Golf clubs and tennis rackets have been made stronger through the use of nanoparticles.
Meanwhile, more futuristic-sounding nanomachines are actually in development as we speak. A nanomachine is a mechanical or electromechanical device whose dimensions are measured in nanometres (that’s millionths of a millimetre). Yes yes, nano = small! You get it. We’re just stressing this because from now on we’re going to start saying things like ‘nano scale’ with no point of reference. Ready then, Dr Emmerich?
Probably the most widely recognised current application of nanotechnology is in medicine, creatively named… nanomedicine.
Nanomedicine was officially recognised by the European Science Foundation back in 2005. It’s the science and technology of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease and traumatic injury using nanoscale structured materials, biotechnology, and even genetic engineering.
Nano-scopic drugs can target specific conditions, most obviously in the form of anti-cancer initiatives which deliver chemotherapy drugs to tumours directly. Newer approaches involve nanocarriers which are temperature and pH sensitive. In Metal Gear parlance, we know these as ‘Smart Drugs’.
“Nanoparticles can indeed be used to deliver drugs, heat, light or other substances to specific types of cells such as cancer cells,” confirms Dr Kostek. “The technique reduces damage to healthy cells in the body and allows for earlier detection of disease. This includes nanodiagnostics, which use of nanodevices for early disease identification or predisposition at cellular and molecular level.”
In other words, it turns out Kojima was onto something — because the potential benefits of nanodiagnostics are actually pretty far-reaching. In fact, the technology could even have a significant part to play in the emerging world of regenerative medicine, Kostek tells us. “It’s an emerging multidisciplinary field dedicated to the reparation, improvement and maintenance of cells, tissues and organs through the use of cell therapy and tissue engineering methods.”
So is it possible that nanotechnology could be used within the human body to administer adrenaline, nutrients, or combat disease, Solid Snake Style?
Certainly, insists Kostek. “As nanomachines are developed and are able to be created consistently, the expectation is that will actually be one of the main applications. [They will also be most likely used for the] gathering of data to assist analysis — and the delivering of care.”
But the technology may not be just about welfare. The same nanocarriers could be used to dispense adrenalin, endorphins or the more insidious-sounding central nervous system (CNS) stimulants, which would er, effectively induce a berserker rage. This has all gone from Solid to Liquid Snake pretty darn fast.
If you’ve dusted off your PS3 recently, you may remember that Metal Gear Solid 4 also introduced gamers to the concept of smart fabrics. In the 2004 MGS’s Octocamo is an advanced camouflage technology which can mirror any surface it comes in touch with.
While these Chameleon-like qualities are more fiction than science, nanoscience is still opening up new frontiers when it comes to nanomaterials, and the results are looking pretty remarkable. The EU funded SKHINCAPS (SKin Healthcare by Innovative NanoCAPsuleS) project, for example, is working with textile and cosmetic industries to develop materials, and even creams, which use biocompatible nanocapsules.
Sadly though, the results are less ‘tactical espionage action’ and more ‘sensible fashion option’. Clothes made using phase-change materials (PCMs), for example, will allow wearers to stay cool during the Summer, but warm during the Winter. This is because the fabric incorporates a thermal regulating nanocapsule filled with paraffin, which can either retain body heat, or keep a wearer cool. If paraffin doesn’t sound like a shady government agency, then we don’t know what does.
As the melting point of paraffin is comparable to the temperature of human skin, nanocapsules absorb energy as the paraffin melts, keeping the wearer cool. Conversely it warms them when there’s a temperature drop and the paraffin chrysalises.
Fabrics with PCMs could become commonplace suggests Carla Silva, Chief Technology Officer at the Centre for Nanotechnology and Smart Materials, in Portugal. “For first layer and sports garments, in which the skin comfort is of great importance, no-release nanocapsules loaded with paraffin allow thermal management in accordance with the temperature of the environment,” she explains.
In time, nano-enhanced textiles could bristle with transparent sensors and actuators, as well as all manner of smart electronics. It seems the introduction of such e-fabrics could one day enable all of us to own a super-suit!
It’s also not inconceivable that wearable electronics could see us commuting with embedded smart medical attachments, and communication devices. The trick is to make them waterproof and durable. Early trials of e-textiles has revealed them to be prone to short-circuiting, as well as bacterial infection, which makes them more gross than convenient.
The Birck Nanotechnology Center at Purdue University, in Indiana, has led research into e-textiles, developing fabrics able to better protect them from the elements, while employing biomechanical energy to power textile-based electronics. More importantly though, it’s created e-fabrics that can be washed in a regular washing machine. Sometimes the small wins are the most important.
Nanoscience could also aid Solid Snake in his beauty regime. Creams containing nanocapsules that blend vitamins and antioxidants for anti-aging skincare are now readily available. Benefits include the prevention of bacterial infections on the skin. FYI a wide range of UV sunscreen protection use titanium dioxide nanoparticles.
EU-funded project PEPTICAPS has been busy developing advanced nano cosmetics, which include nanocapsules with vitamins and antioxidants.
Projector co-ordinator Dr Damien Dupin suggests we could all do with a level of protection against an increasingly toxic world. “In everything we are touching now there are chemical products,” he says, citing latex gloves as an example. Nanocapsules are able to detect changes in skin pH levels, releasing protective enzymes when required. If MGS 4 was anything to go by, he could definitely use a pot (or 12).
When embedded in fabric, nanocapsules can also be used to treat skin conditions like Eczema. By combining concentrated plant oil with nanotechnology, the container can be programmed to release its payload when it encounters the bacteria behind a skin infection. Using a process called covalent bonding, capsules stay attached for the life of the garment (obviously once the oil has been dumped, the capsule is done).
Nanotechnology is also being used to develop innovative nanomaterials, able to replicate the properties of muscle tissue. One such is MXene, built from layers only atoms thick. MXene has been used by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to produce an ultrathin artificial muscle, for so-called soft robotics.
This artificial muscle can behave much like a real muscle, expanding or contacting when driven by electrical stimuli. It’s capable of a wide variety of movement, all without bending or breaking. Obvious applications could be in the development of more versatile prosthetics and biometric devices.
Importantly, MXenes can be 3D printed, opening the door to a raft of other applications, such as energy storage.
This ability to 3D print nanomachines could also revolutionise the technology in our pocket, potentially transforming consumer electronics. The hope is that scalable nanomanufacturing could usher in an era of low-cost sensors and memory for mobile devices.
Nano technology even has a role to play when it comes to combating exposure to nerve agents. Researchers have found that a nanodevice device can both consume the nerve agent and deploy an antidote. Just the thing when you’re faced with Novichok wielding enemy agents on vacation…
But what of more mundane applications? There have been claims nanotechnology can be used to amplify the benefits of a workout, there’s even been talk of developing ‘fat burning’ nano machine. Is this true or false?
“The answer is true,” says Kostek. “This has been discussed and theories put forward how this would work. If successfully applied to treating disease, then a possible next step in the use of nano machines could be health care including exercise and weight control.”
All of which sounds almost too good to be true. Are there any disadvantages or complications that could arise from the use of nanotechnologies? Possibly, muses Kostek.
“At this point in time we do not know what the side effects of having a nanotech device in a human body will be,” he says. “Depending on the make-up of the devices and whether it is inserted into a body for a short duration, or long term, are all unknowns. Identifying the risks and solutions will be key elements of the on-going research and need to be addressed.”
And what of future nanotechnology? It seems that the tech could find its way into space sooner rather than later.
“Work is underway to determine the viability of using nanotubes in space,” confirms Kostek. “NASA is completing research at the International Space Station to determine the effect on nanotubes in space. Early experiments reveal that changes to the material occurred, so this is now being investigated to determine if nanotubes could be used safely in space.”