FUTURISTIC machines smaller than a single atom travelling through people's bloodstream to deliver drugs could become a reality through work by Welsh scientists.
Nanotechnology engineers at the University of Wales, Swansea, are teaming up with colleagues at the Clinical School to examine new implant technology and drug delivery.
Ever since John Dalton convinced the world of the existence of atoms in 1903, scientists have wanted to do things with them.
Nanotech takes that ability to a new plane.
Essentially it is manipulation at the molecular scale involving distances covering just a millionth of a millimetre.
Working at a scale a million times smaller than a pinhead, researchers can build nano-devices atom by atom.
Nature has been doing nanotechnology for millions of years.
A gecko's feet for instance have superfine hairs which can slip between the molecules of other substances allowing the creatures to hang upside down on glass.
At Swansea, the Multidisciplinary Nanotechnology Centre housing laboratories and bio-centres was finished earlier this year and will be opened officially in 2005 by Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser.
Headed by Professor Steve Wilks, the centre has begun a joint initiative with the university's Clinical School.
A university spokesperson said, "It will open up new areas of medicine and provide leaps forward in methods of treatment.
"Nanotechnology could eventually lead to microscopic machines sitting in the human body to monitor vital signs or deliver drugs, run by bacteria-powered fuel cells which would dissolve harmlessly once the job was done."
Prof Wilks said it was also possible that new "smart" drugs could be delivered direct to precise locations in the body.
He said, "Nanotechnology is the smallest scale at which engineering can take place and future possibilities can only be guessed at.
"It is just a completely new type of technology."
Prof Mark Welland, head of the University of Cambridge Nanoscale Science Laboratory, said, "It is an enabling technology so will appear in many different products. It is already appearing in computer chips and products like coatings."
Nano-materials can exploit electrical, optical or other properties because of the way their atoms are arranged.
This means fabrics could change colour electronically so that "chameleon" army uniforms could be developed to mimic surroundings.
Industrial giants such as GE are already pouring money into nanotech because of the new materials which could be developed.
These include corrosion resistant coatings to make hydro-electric turbines more efficient in heavily silted waters and nano-membrane filters for instant cleaning of water.
Other long term nanotech possibilities include:
Replacements for human tissue and organs built atom by atom.
Computer chips containing movies with more than 1,000 hours of play time.
Nano ceramics offering very lightweight but extremely strong coatings for aircraft could slash air travel costs.
PCs with the power of today's computer centres.
Cheap hydrogen storage for a new regenerative energy economy.
Prof Welland said, "To say that in five years an iPod will have 10 times its current storage capacity is very conservative. Similarly, medical testing the way it is done now will be considered crude.
"Medical sensing is very attractive but there could be a downside, if medical sensors become ubiquitous, our physical state could be monitored day to day and if someone hacked into the information there could be problems."