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Nanotechnology: Big Things from a Tiny World

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Nanotechnology is basically the technology of atoms and molecules. These particles are very small hence the prefix ‘nano-’. There are 1 billion nanometers in a meter, smaller than the wavelength of visible light and a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair [source: Berkeley Lab]. This makes nanotechnology the technology of things smaller than anything visible by a light microscope. Nanotechnology as a field is still growing and there exists no agreed upon or standard definition.

According to understandingnano.com a website dedicated to knowledge on nanotech, nanotechnology is “The study and use of structures between 1 nanometer (nm) and 100 nanometers in size.”

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Another definition by the European Commission: “Nanotechnology is the study of phenomena and fine-tuning of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale. Products based on nanotechnology are already in use and analysts expect markets to grow by hundreds of billions of euros during this decade.”

Mordern day progress in nanotechnology can be credited to physicist Richard Feynman who in 1959 gave Nanotechnology promises to deliver precise machines and machine components built from molecular and atom level. Anything either living or nonliving is made up of atoms and molecules thus nanotechnology can be applied on literally everything with very high levels of precision and high performance.

Nanotechnology may also be viewed as a branch of the broader nanoscience since nanoscience is the study of objects and systems which are 1-100nm. These objects are then typically used and applied in nanotechnologies such as microelectronics, photonics and microfluidics.

Applications of nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has a wide range of applications; big things from a tiny world, ranging from agriculture, medicine, manufacturing nanofilms, defense, space exploration and clothing industry.

  • Broader categories of the applications of nanotechnolgy:
  •  Nanomaterials, nanostructures
  •  Molecular and atomic engineering
  •  Nanoelectronics
  •  Nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine
  •  Nanodevices and nanorobots
  •  Industrial application of nanotechnology
  •  Nanomechanics

Nanomaterials and nanostructures

Nanomaterials and nanostructures are key components in the development of nanomanufacturing technologies leading toward macroscopic system innovations that directly benefit society. They find extensive applications in the areas of electronics, optoelectronics, photonics, photovoltaics, catalysis, energy storage, sensors, environmental science, and biomedical systems.

Electronics, nanoelectronics and IT applications

  • Nanotechnology has reduced the size and increased the speed and efficiency of electronic gadgets. These continuously evolving applications include:
  • Transistors have gotten smaller by the day through nanotechnology. Smaller, faster, and better transistors show that in the near future all computer memory may be contained in a single tiny space.
  • Magnetic random access memory (MRAM). MRAM is enabled by nanometer‐scale magnetic tunnel junctions and can quickly and effectively save data during a system shutdown and much faster booting. Computer booting may just happen almost instantly which saves on time and works to everyone’s convenience.
  • Ultra-high definition displays and televisions use quantum dots to produce more clear and brighter colors while consuming less power.
  • Flexible, bendable, foldable, rollable, and stretchable electronics are reaching into various sectors and are being integrated into a variety of products, including wearables, medical applications, aerospace applications, and the Internet of Things.
  • Flash memory chips for smart phones and thumb drives; ultra-responsive hearing aids; antimicrobial/antibacterial coatings on keyboards and cell phone casings; conductive inks for printed electronics for RFID/smart cards/smart packaging; and flexible displays for e-book readers.
  • Nanoparticle copper suspensions.

 

Nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine

  • The process of diagnosing and treating of atherosclerosis whereby scientists develop particles that resemble those of cholesterol and deposit then in the arteries but which fight the building up of plaque.
  • Researchers are working on nanoparticle therapies that can help fight cancer cells or help deliver medication directly reducing risk of damage to healthy cells.
  •  Researchers are looking for a way to grow complex tissues so that they can be readily available for transplant.
  •  Research is ongoing to find ways to give vaccines without use of needles but rather use nanotechnology which would reduce the cost of annual vaccinations to the government.
  • Nanotubes used in broken bones to provide a structure for new bone material to grow.

 

Energy Production

  • Bio-nano generators.
  • Solar cells
  • Molecular and atomic engineering

 

Molecular design has been an important element of many disciplines, including bioengineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science, mechanical engineering and chemistry.

Consumer Products

  •  Antibiotic surfaces (e.g. incorporation of silver nanoparticles or antibacterial peptides into coatings to prevent microbial infection)
  •  Cosmetics (e.g. rheological modification with small molecules and surfactants in shampoo)
  •  Cleaning products (e.g. nanosilver in laundry detergent)
  •  Consumer electronics (e.g. organic light-emitting diode displays (OLED))
  •  Electrochromic windows (e.g. windows in Dreamliner 787)
  • Zero emission vehicles (e.g. advanced fuel cells/batteries)
  •  Self-cleaning surfaces (e.g. super hydrophobic surface coatings)

Energy Harvesting and Storage

  • Flow batteries – Synthesizing molecules for high-energy density electrolytes and highly-selective membranes in grid-scale energy storage systems.
  •  Lithium-ion batteries – Creating new molecules for use as electrode binders, electrolytes, electrolyte additives, or even for energy storage directly in order to improve energy density (using materials such as graphene, silicon nanorods, and lithium metal), power density, cycle life, and safety.
  •  Solar cells – Developing new materials for more efficient and cost-effective solar cells including organic, quantum dot or perovskite-based photovoltaics.
  •  Photocatalytic water splitting – Enhancing the production of hydrogen fuel using solar energy and advanced catalytic materials such as semiconductor nanoparticles

Environmental Engineering

  •  Water desalination (e.g. new membranes for highly-efficient low-cost ion removal)
  •  Soil remediation (e.g. catalytic nanoparticles that accelerate the degradation of long-lived soil contaminants such as chlorinated organic compounds)
  •  Carbon sequestration (e.g. new materials for CO2 adsorption)
  •  Immunotherapy
  • Peptide-based vaccines (e.g. amphiphilic peptide macromolecular assemblies induce a robust immune response)
  •  Peptide-containing biopharmaceuticals (e.g. nanoparticles, liposomes, polyelectrolyte micelles as delivery vehicles)

 

Synthetic Biology

  • CRISPR – Faster and more efficient gene editing technique
  • Gene delivery/gene therapy
  • Metabolic engineering Protein engineering
  •  DNA-functionalized materials

Ethical, social and environmental consequences of nanoscience and nanotechnology

Talking about nanoscience and nanotechnology will make one sound either fancy or scary due to the complexity of the whole subject. It’s the new thing around and everyone is fascinated. This has made the advances in nanotechnology move in such speed that safety and regulations concerns about this ‘little known’ field which has so much potential. The biggest concern is how to deal with risks and uncertainties. “Uncertainty is one of the major obstacles to the commercialization of nanotechnology—uncertainty about what the risks might be and uncertainty about how the federal government might regulate nanotechnology in the future.” – Mike Honda, 2007.

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