Semiconductor components are getting smaller all the time. Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), in fact, is now manufacturing chips at the 32 nanometer level. Yet the challenge and cost of constructing these devices are rising exponentially. At some point, instead of trying to etch ever-tinier components out of silicon, it might make more sense to simply grow computer chips from the bottom up -- atom by atom.

Think it can't be done? Well, researchers at the University of Maryland are getting tiny components such as semiconductors and sensors to literally snap themselves together. Cambrios -- a portfolio holding of Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Harris & Harris (NASDAQ:TINY) -- has been working on a self-assembling technology of its own and may soon be able to "grow" batteries using the same technique.

Small and faster
In a somewhat related development, researchers at Cornell and Boston University this week announced that they have developed a scanning tunneling microscope (STM), which can image individual atoms 100 times more quickly than today's best technology can.

In addition to giving STMs significant new capabilities, such as sensing the temperature of individual atoms, the advancement might also allow researchers to begin producing video images of atomic activity. The implications for the health-care and pharmaceutical industries are astounding, in terms of better understanding how certain drugs address disease. At a minimum, investors in STM manufacturing companies, such as FEI (NASDAQ:FEIC), will want to keep abreast of this activity, since it could trigger a significant increase in new sales and revenue.

Shaping the future
The accelerating pace of technological change is not only affecting our ability to see and manipulate things at the atomic level. It is also giving researchers the ability to re-create and redesign existing products. In one notable example, researchers at the University of Bristol have developed a new material that, counterintuitively, gets thicker when it is stretched. They have already applied the technology to aircraft wings and have demonstrated that the material may bend, twist, shrink, and expand the wings in ways that optimize aerodynamic properties and even reduce noise.

I encourage investors to think beyond the immediate implications of this technology for Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) and Boeing (NYSE:BA), and perhaps envision how companies such as Medtronic (NYSE:MDT) and Boston Scientific might apply it to create stents that could expand over time or how Nike (NYSE:NKE) might be able to use it to create innovative new shoes.

The Foolish final word
Computer components that grow themselves, videos of individual atoms, and shape-shifting materials might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but as this past week has demonstrated, the future is coming at all of us at an ever faster rate. These changes hold the potential to determine which companies will be successful in the future and which won't, and they might even be able to help you expand your portfolio.

Interested in staying atop the latest advances in nanotechnology? Consider a subscription to the Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service, where we examine all of the market's movers, shakers, and disruptors. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial.

Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology. His latest book, Jump the Curve: 50 Strategies for Helping Companies Deal with Emerging Technologies, will be published in February 2008. He owns stock in Harris & Harris and Intel. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.