What is nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is often considered one of the newest fields of science and has been born as a result of scientists new found ability to control matter (atoms and molecules) one or a few at a time. This makes the construction of new, never before possible devices such as virus seeking particles a real possibility in the future. There is no doubt that nanotechnology, working on a scale 1 billionth part of a meter, will have an enormous impact on a large number of industries – and it will change our lives
|Nanotechnology is science at the molecular level and, like biotechnology and information technology, is a growth industry with the potential to greatly change the world in which we live. According to Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley “Nanotechnology will reverse the damage caused by the Industrial Revolution.” One of the great promises of nanotechnology is that for the first time scientists have at their disposal tools similar in dimension to the species being detected or manipulated. Prior to nanotechnology, many detection approaches were much akin to driving nails in with a sledge hammer in the sense that only very high concentrations could be detected and often not with much selectivity. The ability to use molecular building blocks, allows the tuning of sensor interactions to dramatically improve the sensitivity and selectivity of detection.|
The ability to work on this incredibly small scale highlights the truth in the adage “size does matter”. On the scale of the nanometer this is true for two reasons. First, material on the nanoscale can often adopt new properties due to the small size and for example, material that is dull on normal scale can be made to glow brightly when made on the nanoscale. Second, size matters when two pieces must fit together precisely as in the example of a plug and drain. For example, the ability to filter water would be considerably enhanced with a system where only water would pass through the membrane and everything else was left behind. Carbon nanotubes show great promise to do just this and the filtering will be very energy efficient.
The other great benefit of nanotechnology is that problems are being tackled by teams of scientists. Nanotechnology works at the crossroads of chemistry, physics, biology and material science, and so requires scientists from all these multiple disciplines to collaborate. This has had the wonderful effect of seeing new solutions to old and difficult problems emerge. For example, the chemists’ ability to form materials that are biocompatible holds the promise of new drug therapies where only the effected tissue is treated and a single dose of medicine can be slowly released over time to provide the best treatment.
|Nanotechnology is ever-present in today’s modern world. You may not realise it, but everyday we use products that contain technology engineered on the micron or nanometre scale. Mobile phones, ink-jet printers and car airbag systems all employ components made with nano- and micro-technology. There are various “nano additives” in many products such as sporting goods and cosmetics. In healthcare, routine tests now make use of nanotechnology to fluorescently “label” individual cells, and techniques such as lab-on-a-chip are now essential tools for the bio-chemist and life-scientist.|
The real excitement about nanotechnology lies in what might be next. Current “nano products” have not taken advantage of special features that operating at such a scale offers but there are now research examples that do just that. For example, engineering of nanoparticles with growth factors has seen the repair of spinal cords even a considerable length of time after injury. Other work has seen specific targeting of cancer cells or tumours in ways that will allow early detection and subsequent treatment of cancer that is far less invasive than current approaches as well as being much more effective.
While there will never be a “nanotechnology aisle” at the supermarket, nanotechnology will undoubtedly fundamentally change the way many things in society work.
This article was written by Professor Joe Shapter, Flinders University