Hundreds of scientists and research engineers were in Houston, Texas this week for the first Associated Nanotechnology Congress, which was held at Rice University. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, participants sought cooperation in the development of tiny mechanisms and materials that could change our world.

The world of nanotechnology is far too small to be seen by the human eye, but its potential impact is huge.

Nanotechnology involves manipulation of matter at the atomic level.  Researchers are concentrating on ways of using this technology for better medical treatments, more powerful computers, and stronger, lighter materials. 

The head of Rice University's Nanotechnology Center, Wade Adams, says a tube with walls that are only one atom thick is incredibly strong.

"The big effort at Rice is single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are predicted to be the strongest material that we will ever find in the universe."

While most of this remains at the experimental level, Mr. Adams says products based on nanotechnology are starting to emerge. "We are going to see some good products come out in the next five years, in terms of materials that have greatly improved properties. Now, we already have taken advantage of some of their other properties, like their electrical conductivity.  You can put a tenth of a percent or a hundredth of a percent of nanotubes in a plastic and make it conductive and use it to protect your computer case from static discharge."

Such applications are of enormous interest to the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. space program. On hand at the conference was Sivaram Arepalli, a native of India who works as a Senior Staff Scientist at the Johnson Space Center.

He sees big things coming from this research focused on small things. "You can make structures that are a lot stronger and with multifunction materials. A structure can provide strength as well as energy and it can sense itself and repair itself and so on."

Composite materials developed by nanotechnology could not only benefit space vehicles, they could also make automobiles and airplanes lighter and stronger.

Such things may be years away, but Sivaram Arepalli says nanotechnology has plenty to offer in the nearer-term.  "There are other small areas where nanotechnology can make an impact, like CO2 [carbon dioxide] absorption, like fuel cells. A small amount of nanotechnology research can give us a lot more information than what we had before."

Scientists attending this conference said such gatherings allow researchers from competing universities and institutions to share information and help each other work towards a future based on nanotechnology.