WHAT IS NANOTECHNOLOGY?
As it makes things smaller, it has more impact on our lives; such is the beauty of nanotechnology. This article takes a brief look at the benefits nanotechnology can bring to our lives.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (otherwise known as STEM) have played an enormous role in our modern-day lives. We cannot even imagine how our world would be had STEM not been a part of it. Everyday things, from the comfortable mattress we wake up on to the smartphones and laptops that we spend hours staring at, are all possible because of immense contributions from STEM.
Another important product of STEM that has undoubtedly carried our lives for the better is nanotechnology. In common perception, mostly inspired by sci-fi movies and shows, nanotechnology can mean anything from futuristic nanobots that can roam through our bodies and heal us in minutes to tiny robots that can hack into any machine in seconds. But in reality, nanotechnology is present everywhere and has been so for a very long time.
Nanotechnology is defined as the creation of any application on the nanometre scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a metre, and nanotechnology is all about reliably manufacturing technology at such tiny scales. The physical properties of matter, such as its melting point, conductivity, reactivity, etc. Become very different at those scales, so shrinking a device can drastically affect its performance. However, by mastering nanotechnology we can have the opportunity to improve several areas of modern life.
While evidence of nanoscience can be seen since the Romans, as early as the first century AD, it is in the past 70 or so years that we have seen this technology actually transform the way we live and work. The development of electronic transistors and microchips in the 1940s, which made modern electronics possible, has been the foundation of modern nanotechnology. Today, applications of nanotechnology can be seen in every facet of life, from sunscreens and deodorants to smartphones and medicine.
APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY
Nanomaterials have been in the consumer market for years now. From adhesives, lubricants, and abrasives to food packaging, manufactured devices and surface treatments, these are just a few examples in which nanotechnology is being applied. Other than that, nanotechnology has far-reaching applications and even farther-reaching future potential in an extremely wide range of possibilities. Let us now see how this tiny tech is impacting us and securing our future.
- Tiny doctors inside the body
The use of nanotechnology in medicine has seen huge developments in recent times. Billions of dollars are being spent to research the use of nanomaterials for the detection and treatment of disease. For example, we have made considerable research in detecting diseases by creating nanomaterials filled with a fluorescent dye that can latch on to the responsible molecules in the blood.
Relevant research is also being done to use nanoparticles in chemotherapy so as to have a targeted attack on the tumour and lessen the side effects of chemo on the rest of the body.
On the other hand, research is being done to develop minuscule sensors that can be safely injected into our body, and which can monitor our vitals more closely than ever, thus enabling doctors to personalize the treatment. There are endless possibilities for nanomedicine, ranging from monitoring inflammation and post-surgical recovery to more unusual use cases where electronic devices actually interfere with our body’s signals for controlling organ function.
Image source – The Conversation
- Nanobots and teeth
The application of nanotech in the dental field is called nano dentistry, and it is an innovative new technology that has made huge strides in dentistry. There are several new dental products available, ranging from implants to oral hygiene products that utilize this technology.
Image source – Nanodentistry
Nanodentistry is being used to diagnose, treat, and prevents oral and dental diseases. It is also being used to relieve pain and improve dental health. Companies are already manufacturing products like nano-impressions, nano-ceramics, nano-composites, and nano-fillers, to name a few. Nanodentistry can also be used in the treatment of oral cancer, which can have ground-breaking effects in medical science if successfully mastered.
Other applications that dental researchers are currently looking into include:
- Endodontic therapy
- Preventing dental decay
- Integration with dental implants
- Treating periodontal disease
- Screws for bone fixation
- Direct pulp-capping procedures
- Dentin regeneration
- Enhanced bone regeneration
- Producing artificial mucosa, etc.
- The creation of graphene
Another promising application of nanoscience is in the utilization of graphene, and other super-materials using passive nanostructures. Graphene is a nanomaterial that comprises a solitary sheet of carbon of the thickness of one atom. It is extraordinarily hard and has promising properties with regard to electrical conduction. Not just that, it’s flexible as well. Some of the astounding properties of graphene are:
- It is 200 times stronger and 6 times lighter than steel.
- It is a superconductor of electricity.
- It can stretch up to 20% of its length.
- It can endlessly bend without breaking.
So, the future holds immense possibilities with respect to graphene-based technologies, such as flexible solar cells for energy generation, and flexible screens in our smartphones! Graphene can also be used in fabricating biomedical sensors for bio-sensing, bio-imaging, and therapeutic usage due to outstanding aqueous processability and other functional surface properties.
- Tiny electronic sensors
With the current advancements in nanotech, sensors with very minute features can be printed on flexible rolls of plastic. They can be manufactured in large quantities at a very low cost. These sensors can be used to continuously monitor the health of critical infrastructure such as bridges, aircraft, nuclear reactors, etc.
Self-healing can still be considered science fiction for the most part, but with further advancements in nanoscience, it would not be that way for long. Changing the structure of certain materials at the atomic level can give them some very interesting properties. For example, several materials are already available commercially that have a unique atomic texture that allows them to repel water.
Scientists are currently researching the ability to disperse nanoparticles as a means to fill out any small cracks that might appear and “heal” the damaged or worn-out portion. This could potentially produce self-healing materials for everyday structures such as aircraft cockpits, microelectronics, server farms, displays, etc. and prevent small fractures in them from turning into large, more challenging cracks.
- Possibilities in big data
In this age of information technology, there is a huge increase in electronic data, which has produced the urgent need to effectively manage this data, spot the patterns and alert us to the problems without missing critical information. For instance, big data from traffic sensors to help manage congestions and avoid accidents, prevent crimes by using statistics to more effectively allocate police resources, to name a few.
Nanotechnology plays an important role here by allowing the creation of ultra-dense memory that can store huge amounts of this data. At the same time, it’s giving them the motivation to create super-effective algorithms for handling, scrambling and conveying information without compromising its dependability.
PC architectures inspired by the human mind could likewise utilize energy all the more effectively, all while battling less with excess heat – one of the key issues with contracting electronic devices further.
- Fight against climate change
One of the key ways to fight against climate change is by devising newer and more effective methods to produce electricity. Thanks to advances in nanoscience, we are already seeing batteries that can store more energy for electric cars and solar panels that can convert sunlight to electricity more efficiently.
Both these applications use nanotexturing to turn a flat surface into a 3D one with a much greater surface area. This allows for more space for reactions to take place, thus enabling higher energy storage or generation.
The future can show us nanoparticles that can harvest energy from their environment with high conversion efficiency. For example, energy can be harvested from movement, light, variations in temperature, glucose and several other sources
Image source – The Conversation
- Military applications
The military, no matter which country, has seen tremendous potential in nanotechnology. So, it comes as no surprise that a majority of nanoscience research is sponsored by the military and thus, focused on military applications. These can span a wide spectrum of developments, such as:
- Improvement in medical and casualty care for soldiers. For example, wound dressings coated with certain nanomaterials allow for control of the release of drugs and proteins for a specified period of time, which can ultimately accelerate wound healing.
- Production of lightweight, strong and multi-functional materials for use in military clothing, offering better protection as well as enhanced connectivity. Current research in nanotech has also allowed the development of durable nonwoven fabrics that can impart water absorbance or repellence, fire and thermal resistance, and antimicrobial treatment, to name a few.
- Enhancement of military intelligence using smart sensor technologies in which nano-sensors are integrated with neural networks. Nano-sensors can be used to detect harmful chemicals and biological weapons, damages to military equipment, nature and the magnitude of the potential risk when explosives are detected.
- Use of energetic nano-particles in propulsion applications due to their unique combustion properties such as rapid ignition and short combustion times. For instance, they can be included in solid fuels, solid propellants, energetic gallants in liquid systems, etc.
- Nanocomposites are another category whether there is tremendous ongoing research and a wide range of potential use cases. Current developments in nanocomposites are focused on use in military food packaging, ballistic protection and body armour, solid lubricants, shock-absorbing materials, electrostatic charge dissipation, electromagnetic shielding, fire retardation and corrosion protection.
- Developments of nanosized drones that could be used in surveillance, remote detonations, and communication, to name a few. These drones can have long battery lives with nano-sensors that allow facial and object detection.
- Uses of nanotechnology for markedly smaller satellites together with smaller launch vehicles, thus, making these satellites cost-effective. Moreover, these nano-satellites could be used in swarms for radar, communication and intelligence.
Image source – ResearchGate
Arguably the most exciting part about nanoscience is the potential that it holds for the future. Nano-systems are the next step in achieving this sci-fi future that we have all dreamt of. Nano-systems basically involve the self-assembly of nano-factories or machines that can make a product on the atomic scale, that work together with other nanoparticles and machines to create complex molecular structures for specific tasks and functions.
For instance, we can develop nano-systems that can produce synthetic materials without any external input. This process not only consumes fewer fossil fuels but also uses carbon dioxide from the air, which has obvious benefits for the environment and climate. Other potential applications include self-healing structures, disaster-resistant buildings, protective gear, etc.
FEARS AND CONCERNS ABOUT NANOTECHNOLOGY
While nanotechnology has no doubt a bright future ahead, it is not without its dangers and cautions. According to a recent study conducted by the government of the UK, as far as the general public is concerned, there are two key concerns. The first is the possible toxicity of nanomaterials because as we have learnt when we shrink matter to such small sizes, the matter that is harmless in macro-scales can become fatal at nanoscales. We know that most nanomaterials are not toxic, but we must still take necessary precautions during future developments,
Another fear of nanotechnology concerns the proper relationship between man and nature. While the consequences of this fear are not manifested with the present advancements, it would not be unrealistic after a few decades. By replacing living parts of the body with man-made artefacts, we can engineer an entirely synthetic form of life that is better adapted to the Earth’s environment than life itself is. But we still do not have a complete understanding of how life works and the immense complexities that are involved. So, we must be careful while treading these murky waters.
As already discussed, a large proportion of nanotechnology is focused on military applications, which may have negative implications on societal and political relations within the community. It is likely that nanotechnology will further widen the gap between the means of political violence available to the military and those available to the civilian population and indirectly contribute to terrorism.
There may be issues arising in terms of intellectual property assignment, due to the difficulties in establishing the uniqueness and obviousness in the process of nanotechnology patent applications. A nano-structured product can be considered to lack novelty because the relevant nanostructure material was present in an existing product, even though the nanostructure material was not recognized. These kinds of issues can have an adverse effect on the progress of this technology.
Another concern is that of employment. During the improvement of nanotechnology, industries are likely to have high demands for the scientists, engineers, and technicians who have to build and integrate the new ideas into processes and products. But at the same time, the demand for unskilled labour would drop drastically, causing an imbalance in the job market.
IMPORTANCE OF STEM IN NANOTECHNOLOGY
STEM is the starting point for all of this. If one wishes to become an engineer or scientist working in the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology, then they must have all their STEM-related concepts clear. Young students can start by taking more science and maths classes in their school, participating in international STEM summer camps, and attending workshops related to nanotech.
One of the best ways to nurture their curiosity about to sciences and have a fun-filled learning experience is to participate in STEM summer schools. These schools have trained professionals who provide them with a hands-on learning experience in the field of their choice. Students can meet and interact with research scientists and industry professionals to receive the necessary career guidance and confidently choose a career in the field of nanoscience.
They can meet other students with common interests, and have friendships and partnerships that can last a lifetime. Last but not the least, as part of these STEM learning schools, they can visit state-of-the-art research facilities and large-scale industries and have a live experience of how science and innovation progress.
To conclude, nanotechnology is astounding, as is the scientific research being done to make and control these staggering nanomaterials. Nanotechnology can change dental medicine, healthcare, and human life more profoundly than several developments of the past. However, they even have the potential to evoke important advantages, like improved health, higher use of natural resources, and reduced environmental pollution. It has effectively improved the world in ways we could not have imagined just a few years prior, and it will just keep on doing in the future.