Nanotechnology refers to an area of science that involves the manipulation of matter on an atomic or molecular scale, generally accepted to be in the 1 to 100 nanometer range in at least one dimension. It involves the creation of chemicals, materials and even functioning mechanical devices at an extremely small scale.
So just how small are these nano objects we’re talking about, I hear you ask? Well since you asked so nicely, I’ll attempt to explain. For starters – just to give you an idea: 1 nanometer (nm) is about one billionth of a metre. A human hair is about 80,000 – 100,000 nm thick. Using the gift of imagination, let’s shrink ourselves down to the nano scale (effectively making us The Nano-Tech Guys? Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?). Now that we’re tiny, let’s adjust the scale of things and take a look at a few familiar objects, to bring things into a more familiar perspective.
If we took 1 nm as representative of 1 metre, then mini me would be 1.7 nm tall. Our previously mentioned human hair would be 80,000 metres thick. That’s 80 kilometres. A sheet of paper would be 100 km thick. So if mini me stood next to a sheet of paper, it would be like big me standing next to something 100 km high. An object the thickness of a coin would be high enough to bump into some low earth orbit satellites. I hope this helps put things into perspective. Anyway, moving on…
I think it’s fair to say nanotech is still in its infancy, owing to the obvious difficulties in manipulating matter on such a small scale. At this tiny scale, many of the materials we’re used to dealing with have very different and very interesting properties, opening up a range of applications and possibilities. Ever the inquisitive one, I hear you ask again – “What can we do with these tiny items?” Well actually, you may have already used devices and products that incorporate nanotechnology. A few examples are:
Yes, sunscreen. Your transparent sunscreen most likely has nano-particles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that absorb harmful UV rays.
Nanoparticles are increasingly being added to clothing to offer UV protection, antibacterial action via silver nanoparticles, or nano silica particles for waterproofing. Expect future developments to merge nanotubes and nano fibres into “smart” clothing that can respond to your body, or your immediate environment.
Computers / Smartphones / Tablets
Yup, those too. The super-fast processors that run your PC, smartphone, etc are manufactured using ultra-small semiconductor components that can be as little as 22 nm across nowadays.
One substance that seems to be causing plenty of excitement in the nanotech world is graphene.
Graphene is simply our old friend carbon – the same stuff that gives us charcoal, pencil lead, and the black stuff you have to scrub off the bottom of the pot when you get carried away playing games and you burn your dinner. Carbon atoms can be arranged in a variety of ways, with very different results. Depending on the configuration of the atoms you can get hard diamond, or soft pencil lead, to name only 2. Graphene is a hexagonal, 2-dimensional sheet arrangement of carbon atoms, and is only one atom thick. This substance has incredible properties, particularly excellent electrical conductivity, which makes it perfect for manufacturing computer chips. Graphene nanoribbons could be capable of transporting electrons thousands of times faster than a traditional metallic conductor, resulting in fast processors and solid state storage technology that would be a gamer’s dream.
The medical applications of nanotech are shaping up quite well too, with biotelemetry implants the size of a grain of rice that can remain powered (with a graphene technology battery) for up to a month. In the medical field, nanotech also allows for effective drug delivery mechanisms. A nanostructured composition encapsulating a protein called interleukin-2 (IL -2), which is lethal to cancer cells, helps fight cancer more effectively while minimizing the side effects of high dosages of the “naked” IL-2 protein.
Nanotech has the potential to revolutionize a large number of industries. If we can develop better techniques for manipulating matter at this scale, we can expect a myriad of amazing new applications to crop.
Right, so I’m off to play Crysis, where nanosuits and other cool hi-tech stuff abound. Let’s hope I don’t burn my dinner.