Nanoscience: engineering the world of the infinitesimal

Nanotechnology offers a whole new frontier of science. For some, the idea of digging deep into the tiny and invisible may stretch credulity, but nanoscience is a field of increasing knowledge and innovation with regard to a range of products proving vital in the development of many industries.

Nanotechnology means understanding the very small on molecular scale; how that world works and how we can manipulate it in ways that can assist humanity. This means going way smaller than microscopic – in fact 1,000 times smaller.

How nano is re-engineering the everyday

So what are we doing with this? Why do we need this? Nanotechnology means we can learn about the infinitesimal and engineer changes and even products, to suit us. Materials at atomic level have surprisingly complex structure quite different to what we see with the human eye. If we understand how the fundamental construct of certain things makes them strong and durable, we can learn to replicate that strength and structure to create new solutions and materials that will be useful to us in all sorts of ways, both on Earth and in space.

And we are already using many of these products in everyday living: nanoparticles of silica to improve waterproofing in clothing; adhesives that don’t lose stickiness in high temperatures; reduced flammability in upholstery; tiny nanoparticles of dioxide and zinc oxide used to block UV radiation while reducing the thickness and gooeyness of old-fashioned sunscreens. And so on, into many applications.

Engineering the small to expand the future

Nanotechnology is beginning to impact on an industrial scale, despite it being seen by some as scarily close to sci-fi. However, as the field gains greater acclaim, businesses are investigating the potential of the tiny world to positively influence the bigger picture. Other applications include the use of nanomaterials in power plants, water treatment facilities, and road infrastructure, as well as the installation of nanosensors to monitor air pollution levels and other environmental metrics.

Computers

Nanotechnology is important for the design of computer chips, communications, smartphones, and general electronics. Going smaller means more convenience and less use of power. Nanotechnology can deliver smaller, faster, and more powerful chips needed to meet big data demands. It’s the ultra light-weight technology required for running computer processes at faster speeds while maintaining cooler temperatures.

Manufacturing

There’s a host of new ideas coming forward in the tiny world of nanoscience. Carrying out manufacturing processes at nanoscale reduces costs, improves efficiency, and improves the quality of materials. Nanoparticle-embedded steel for instance, allows it to be made lighter, thinner, but stronger. Pipes in the oil industry have been nanocoated to provide resistance to corrosion. The beauty of this nano-cladding is that it can be applied at a lower temperature and faster speed than conventional methods, leading to reduced cost and cheaper pipes.

Nanomedicine

Nanoparticles can cross biological barriers within the human body in a more efficient, faster and targeted manner than conventional medicines such as injections or pills. While much of nanomedicine is still in the clinical trial stage, the global market for nanomedicine is expected to reach over 200 billion dollars in the next few years. Various illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes are all seen as likely to benefit from this new medical technology.

Energy

Wherever nanotech is applied, there are amazing benefits. This is a technology just in time for the growth in demand for solar power. In nano-engineered solar cells, smaller particles and materials with different molecular structures facilitate higher energy absorption. Batteries have also benefitted from new research in nanotech, which is being applied in lithium ion batteries. Batteries are being made safer by replacing the flammable liquid within them with solid lithium conducting ceramic nanomaterials. Because nanoparticles are so much better at absorption, they are increasing used in construction, improving the efficiency of both lighting and heating.

Food

Nanotech is playing a vital role in feeding the world’s growing population, making food and food packaging more durable and resistant to bacteria. If food lasts longer, less will be thrown away by consumers or rejected by supermarkets. Nanotechnology is contributing in the following ways:

  • nanotech is being used in bottles, cartons and packaging films to provide an impermeable barrier to gases like oxygen or carbon dioxide
  • it is also being used in containers embedded with silver nanoparticles to kill bacteria
  • nanosensors are being used to detect bacteria and other contaminates like Salmonella at packaging plants
  • nanosensors are also used on farms to detect when a particular plant needs water or nutrients, and can release these requirements to the plant at the right moment
  • new nano-pesticides are being tested to reduce chemical impacts on plants by activating only when ingested by an insect.

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