The ever-helpful Wikipedia describes nanotechnology as “the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale”, or “engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale”.
How big is this atomic/molecular scale? Nanotechnology generally refers to something in the realm of 1-100 nanometres. (A nanometer is one billionth of a metre). This, apparently, is the “quantum realm”, which sounds very exciting. Hydrogen, the element with the smallest-sized atom (the littlest atom of all!) has a diameter of about a quarter of a nanometer. If you think of the world being equivalent to a metre, a nanometer would be about the size of a marble.
So “nanotechnology” essentially refers to things of a certain physical size. All sorts of materials and systems fall under the nanotechnology heading, in industries as diverse as medicine, aeronautics, construction and information technology. Scientists “build” systems molecule-by-molecule, or utilise the unique properties materials have at their quantum level – for example, at an atomic level, opaque materials might become transparent (copper) or insoluble materials soluble (gold).
Some examples of nanotechnology, in various stages of development:
- Nanoparticles that deliver drugs to specific cells, reducing the amount of drug consumed and the resulting side-effects.
- Nanoporous membranes and magnetic nanoparticles to remove ions and heavy metals from water or as part of medical procedures like renal dialysis.
- More attractive, efficient and flexible LED displays, through the use of nano semiconductors. LEDs can be found in lighting systems, televisions, smartphones, computer screens and all sorts of other things. There are also organic LEDs (OLEDs), already being used in some smartphones.
- Increased yield of solar cells.
- More powerful computers.
- Better batteries.
- Lighter and stronger materials, with immediate benefits for the aerospace industry (decreased weight and size of materials, and hence decreased energy consumption) but which can also be employed in humbler fashions to make (say) lighter baseball bats and running shoes.
- Nifty surface effects, like self-cleaning, anti-fogging or fire-protective glass (employing nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silica, respectively). Nano-ceramic particles have been used in household applications to achieve smoother, more heat-resistant surfaces (eg for irons). Self-healing surfaces are on the way. Colloidal silver has been incorporated into polymers to make (amongst other things) bacterial-resistant yoga mats (PDF).
- Maybe, just maybe…invisibility!!
There are caveats to all this fabulousness, of course — there are concerns about nanoparticles in cosmetics, sunscreen and food penetrating the body and doing nasty things, the possibility of constructing nano-sized weapons of mass destruction and so on.
I’m a bit nanoed out.