Tiny robots that save lives? The future has never looked smaller

How nanobots could change everything

In the future, physicians will have an army of health aides small enough to fit on the head of a pin.

"We will have these tiny robots, and the doctor will inject it into your blood vein, and it will move and go to find a tumor cell, or repair something, or deliver a drug with high precision," said Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Bernard Feringa, while noting that such technology is likely four or five decades away.

"I'm working on nanoscience, so making all kinds of machines and motors and all kinds of gadgets at the scale of a nanometer, which is one billionth of a meter," said Feringa, who got his Nobel in 2016 along with two others for work developing the world's first molecular machines.

Feringa, who spoke to CBS MoneyWatch from Davos, Switzerland, where he is part of a European Research Council (ERC) delegation to this year's World Economic Forum, holds two fingers practically touching to illustrate a millimeter. Then try to visualize something a million times smaller to reach nano scale.

Funded by the ERC starting in 2008, the University of Groningen in the Netherlands professor has used molecular motors to rotate glass cylinders 10,000 times bigger than the motors. The molecular motor can be likened to where the electric motor stood in the 1830s, when scientists came up with various spinning cranks and wheels, not knowing they would eventually lead to inventions including washing machines and food processors.

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The smartphone is another example of world-changing technology based on advances in physics and chemistry that came half a century before the mobile gadget came into existence, Feringa said.

"There are 80,000 nano meters on a human hair -- this is what we learned the last 20 years. We didn't know how to make tiny machines," said the professor, whole likened the miniaturization to writing "a whole library on a human hair."

"We have to go to sustainable society and that gives a strong responsibility for all of us, the people who do inventions, who do discoveries and who do innovation," said Feringa, striking an optimistic note. 

"Let me remind you, creativity and imagination is sustainable, beyond any doubt."