What is Nanotechnology?
Authored by Ottilia Saxl.
Nanotechnology is an exciting area of scientific development which promises ‘more for less’. It offers ways to create smaller, cheaper, lighter and faster devices that can do more and cleverer things, use less raw materials and consume less energy.
There are many examples of the application of nanotechnology from the simple to the complex. For example, there are nano coatings which can repel dirt and reduce the need for harmful cleaning agents, or prevent the spread of hospital-borne infections. New-generation hip implants can be made more ‘body friendly’ because they have a nanoscale topography that encourages acceptance by the cells in their vicinity.
Moving on to more complex products, a good example of the application of nanotechnology is a mobile phone, which has changed dramatically in a few years – becoming smaller and smaller, while paradoxically, growing cleverer and faster – and cheaper!
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology originates from the Greek word meaning “dwarf”. A nanometre is one billionth (10-9) of a metre, which is tiny, only the length of ten hydrogen atoms, or about one hundred thousandth of the width of a hair! Although scientists have manipulated matter at the nanoscale for centuries, calling it physics or chemistry, it was not until a new generation of microscopes were invented in the nineteen eighties in IBM, Switzerland that the world of atoms and molecules could be visualized and managed.
In simple terms, nanotechnology can be defined as ‘engineering at a very small scale’, and this term can be applied to many areas of research and development – from medicine to manufacturing to computing, and even to textiles and cosmetics. It can be difficult to imagine exactly how this greater understanding of the world of atoms and molecules has and will affect the everyday objects we see around us, but some of the areas where nanotechnologies are set to make a difference are described below.
From Micro to Nano
Nanotechnology, in one sense, is the natural continuation of the miniaturization revolution that we have witnessed over the last decade, where millionth of a metre (10 -6m) tolerances (microengineering) became commonplace, for example, in the automotive and aerospace industries enabling the construction of higher quality and safer vehicles and planes.
It was the computer industry that kept on pushing the limits of miniaturization, and many electronic devices we see today have nano features that owe their origins to the computer industry – such as cameras, CD and DVD players, car airbag pressure sensors and inkjet printers.
Nanotechnology offers opportunities in creating new features and functions. It is already providing the solutions to many long-standing medical, social and environmental problems. Because of its potential, nanotechnology is of global interest. It is attracting more public funding than any other area of technology, estimated at €3.8 billion worldwide in 2005. It is also the one area of research that is truly multidisciplinary.
The contribution of nanotechnology to new products and processes cannot be made in isolation and requires a team effort. This may include life scientists – biologists and biochemists - working with physicists, chemists and information technology experts. Consider the development of a new cochlear implant and what that might require - at least a physiologist, an electronic engineer, a mechanical engineer and a biomaterials expert. This kind of teamwork is essential, not only for a cochlear implant, but for any new nano-based product whether it is a scratch-resistant lens or a new soap powder.
Nano scientists are now enthusiastically examining how the living world ‘works’ in order to find solutions to problems in the 'non-living' world. The way marine organisms build strength into their shells has lessons in how to engineer new lightweight, tough materials for cars; the way a leaf photosynthesizes can lead to techniques for efficiently generating renewable energy; even how a nettle delivers its sting can suggest better vaccination techniques.
These ideas are all leading to what is termed ‘disruptive’ solutions, when the old ways of making things are completely overtaken and discarded, in much the same way as a DVD has taken over from videotape, or a flat screen display from a cathode ray tube.