Have you ever wondered how a butterfly’s wing creates such beautiful colours? We used to think it was through pigments. Now, due to our understanding of the wing’s “nanostructure” – how it works at a molecular and atomic level – we know colours are created by optical interference produced by nano-sized holes in the scales of their wings.

This discovery is already finding applications in telecommunications. For example, replicating the nanoscale structure of water-repellent plant leaves has led to stain-resistant textiles and self-cleaning glass. But these are crude applications in comparison to what is to come.

Nanotechnology – the art of making things from the bottom up as nature does – is about to enter a golden age.

When Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and then “molecular nanotechnology” engineer Eric Drexler began thinking about life at the nanoscale in the last century, they imagined engineering tiny machines at the molecular and atomic level. These “nano” machines would use raw materials to build anything from a computer to a steak sandwich.

But once we had developed the tools, such as electron and atomic force microscopes, to see and understand how materials behave at the nanoscale, it became clear that atoms comprising these tiny devices would soon fly apart. Materials simply behave differently at this level.

Nowadays nanotechnology allows us to fabricate materials with atomic accuracy. Our unprecedented control over the structure of matter allows us to make materials with radically new properties. For example, if we reduce gold to the range of a few nanometres it changes its colour to red and becomes an excellent catalyst for a whole range of chemical reactions.

For the last 20,000 years humans have been taking materials from the earth and forcing them to do something more useful – iron into steel, sand into silicon chips. But what would happen if we could design the perfect material right from the outset?

Today, we can circumvent Nature’s 4 billion year trial-and-error experiment thanks to our modern ability to crunch vast amounts of data using computers. Look at gene sequencing, or the way the drug discovery and materials science sectors are able to screen huge numbers of potential compounds for suitable properties before anyone goes into a laboratory to synthesize them.

These “materials by design” aren’t quite available yet, but most nanoscientists agree that we are so close we can almost taste them. And once they do become available over the next decade humankind will change its relationship with the environment as radically as it did during the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Gone will be the “take-make-waste” method of manufacturing; now we will simply “make”.

Ten years ago this all sounded like science fiction. But governments have since invested nearly US$ 70 billion in nanotechnology research, eager to be at the forefront of this revolution. This will be like the shift from horses to the internal combustion engine, or from vacuum tubes to silicon chips; a transformation enabling new industries to flourish.

Science cannot promise a golden age of abundance for all, as the early nanodreamers had hoped. But “materials by design” will certainly become crucial in sustaining a global population that could top 10 billion later this century and help raise the living standards of the world’s poorest people.

Authors: Tim Harper is Chief Executive Officer and President of Cientifica and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.

Javier Garcia-Martinez is the Founder and Director of Rive Technology and the Vice-Chair of the World Economic Form’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies.