From improving clothing to fighting diseases, nanotechnology is everywhere.
Nanotechnology, or nanotech for short, is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the manipulation of materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices (such as robots).” These objects are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, with incomprehensibly tiny dimensions.
Nanotechnology has evolved from concepts discussed by famed American theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman during his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom delivered sixty years ago at a meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology in 1959. Feynman, who had a wonderful way of making mathematical models interesting to the layperson, spoke about “the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.”
He was a man ahead of his time, posing questions others would not. Feynman wondered why could the entire twenty-four-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica not appear on something as small as the head of a pin? It was already well known, to biologists at least, that huge amounts of information were carried in extremely small spaces, such as human cells.
During his long and respected career, Feynman published numerous books with a strong scientific slant, before passing away in 1988. The included the three-volume set The Feynman Lectures on Physics and his quirky semi-autobiographical and highly readable work Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! aptly subtitled ‘Adventures of a Curious Character.’
Feynman has a legacy as one of the best-known scientists in the world but is also known for his landmark work with some of the darkest chapters in human history, assisting in the development of the atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project during World War II. Many years later, he served on the Rogers Commission, a panel investigating the June 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Throughout his life, Feynman remained a physicist with the enthusiasm of a child, always asking questions, and inspiring others to think of the many ‘what ifs’ surrounding our universe. Where Feynman planted the seeds, others followed, including Norio Taniguchi. A professor at the Tokyo University of Science, he was the first to formulate and define the term ‘nanotechnology’ in his 1974 paper On the Basic Concept of NanoTechnology.
The properties of nanoparticles – particles between one and one hundred nanometres (nm) in size – makes them ideal for countless applications. They can make everyday materials more durable, effective, and longer-lasting. From computers to chemistry, nanotechnology is already a part of items we use every day. If you ever spilled red wine on a carpet and could blot it without staining, thank nanotechnology for nanoparticulate coating, preventing the wine from soaking into the material.
Nanotechnology plays a key role in electronics through nanoelectronics, where it is used widely in components such as memory devices. Today, these devices are a fraction of the size and weight they were just a few years ago. Thanks to nanotechnology, television and computer screens are considerably thinner, resolution is much sharper, and rechargeable batteries are longer-lasting because they consume less power. Through nanoelectronics, components such as transistors are smaller and show promise of becoming molecular-sized.
Nanotechnology affects every area of our lives. Great strides have been made in vehicle efficiency, not only in areas like safety, performance, and fuel consumption but also in reducing harmful gases, particularly carbon monoxide. Using nanotechnology, catalysts in catalytic converters have a greatly increased surface area, allowing for better chemical reactions, which, in turn, makes the catalyst more effective at doing its job of controlling toxic gases and other pollutants. Likewise, nanotechnology’s use in manufacturing processes – many of which produce pollutants like CO2 and hydrocarbons – is used to better control these harmful gases because of nanoparticulate’s absorptive properties, trapping carbon dioxide before it can be released into the atmosphere.
Of all its potential applications, one of the greatest is the use of nanotechnology in medicine. And one of the most exciting is the use of nanorobots, performing actions similar to the plot of science fiction film Fantastic Voyage. The movie, released in 1966, follows the crew of the shrunken submarine Proteus. Their mission was to be injected into the body of a brilliant scientist and remove his life-threatening clot within an hour, before reverting to normal size.
While that aspect obviously remains within the realm of fantasy, over fifty years later, microscopic medical procedures are becoming closer to reality. It is predicted that, in about a decade, microscopic non-biological nanorobots will flow through our bloodstreams much like that submarine, not only gathering valuable data but attacking and destroying cancer cells with an accuracy impossible to achieve with today’s treatment methods.
Nanobots would be far less invasive than surgery and have fewer long-lasting side effects than chemotherapy and radiation. Futurists believe nanobots will be one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in history, addressing and conquering everything from the common cold to drug dependence, since nanobots will have the ability to destroy any virus before it can mutate and spread. Through early detection and by targeting only diseased cells, healthy cells are left intact and undisturbed.
Nanobots will be used for making repairs at the cellular level for cancer detection and treatment, as well as to repair internal injuries, deliver cardiac stem cells to a damaged heart, fight antibiotic-resistant infections, repair damaged kidneys, and help with many other health conditions.
While these mechanical nanobots do not yet exist, researchers are achieving success with nanorobotic agents, which specifically target active cancerous cells. And to keep hospital operating rooms as sterile as possible, University of Houston researchers are investigating ways to kill bacteria through a combination of gold nanoparticles and infrared light.
Ask any camper, outdoor enthusiast, or athlete, and they will tell you about the best clothing that is resistant to ultraviolet rays, mosquitoes, and bacteria. Today, many dress shirts and pants are stain-resistant and do not wrinkle, and activewear T-shirts do not hold odour, all because of nanotechnology and microbe-killing nanosilvers to inhibit bacteria.
Using nanoparticles to coat clothing makes water bead instead of soaking into the fabric, while zinc oxide or titanium dioxide incorporated into material helps protect the wearer from harmful ultraviolet rays. And with mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus, malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus, and Keystone virus, a growing problem, many clothing manufacturers are getting on board. Instead of wearers applying DEET or other mosquito repellents to their bodies, the insecticide Permethrin is used as nanoparticles on hats, shirts, pants, sleeping bags, and tents to kill mosquitoes and other insects including ticks, mites, and spiders.
Worldwide, many universities are offering courses in nanoengineering including the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, the University of California (Berkeley), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to name a few. This branch of engineering deals with nanomaterials and their interaction in making useful materials, devices, and systems, focusing on the design and building of machines, engines, and structures. Soon, more young minds will follow the paths of Feynman and Taniguchi, uncovering more nanotechnology applications to make us live longer, healthier, safer lives.