Nanotechnology is a common word these days, but many of us don’t realize the amazing impact it has on our daily lives. According to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology is “science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.” One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or 10-9 of a meter. For comparison, a sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Scientists are discovering that atoms and molecules behave differently at the nanoscale.
It is also a rapidly expanding field. Scientists and engineers are having great success making materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased electrical conductivity, and chemical reactivity compared to their larger-scale equivalents.
Below are 10 ways nanotechnology impacts our lives on a daily basis.
1. Faster, smaller, and more powerful computers that consume far less power, with longer-lasting batteries. Circuits made from carbon nanotubes could be vital in maintaining the growth of computer power, allowing Moore’s Law to continue.
2. Faster, more functional, and more accurate medical diagnostic equipment. Lab-on-a-chip technology enables point-of-care testing in real time, which speeds up delivery of medical care. Nanomaterial surfaces on implants improve wear and resist infection.
3. Nanoparticles in pharmaceutical products improve their absorption within the body and make them easier to deliver, often through combination medical devices. Nanoparticles can also be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs to specific cells, such as cancer cells.
The under-body panels on the new C7 Chevrolet Corvette are made of nanocomposite carbon. Image: Tuner Tom / Wikimedia Commons
4. Improved vehicle fuel efficiency and corrosion resistance by building vehicle parts from nanocomposite materials that are lighter, stronger, and more chemically resistant than metal. Nanofilters remove nearly all airborne particles from the air before it reaches the combustion chamber, further improving gas mileage.
5. Nanoparticles or nanofibers in fabrics can enhance stain resistance, water resistance, and flame resistance, without a significant increase in weight, thickness, or stiffness of the fabric. For example, “nano-whiskers” on pants make them resistant to water and stains.
6. Water filters that are only 15-20 nanometers wide can remove nano-sized particles, including virtually all viruses and bacteria. These cost-efficient, portable water treatment systems are ideal for improving the quality of drinking water in emerging countries.
7. Carbon nanotubes have a variety of commercial uses, including making sports equipment stronger and lighter weight. For example, a tennis racket made with carbon nanotubes bends less during impact, and increases the force and accuracy of the delivery. Nanoparticle-treated tennis balls can keep bouncing twice as long as standard tennis balls.
8. Most sunscreens today are made from nanoparticles that effectively absorb light, including the more dangerous ultraviolet range. They also spread more easily over the skin. These same nanoparticles are also used in food packaging to reduce UV exposure and prolong shelf life.
9. Many drink bottles are made from plastics containing nanoclays, which increase resistance to permeation by oxygen, carbon dioxide, and moisture. This helps retain carbonation and pressure and increases shelf life by several months.
10. Thanks to nanotechnology, a huge variety of chemical sensors can be programmed to detect a particular chemical at amazingly low levels, for example, a single molecule out of billions. This capability is ideal for surveillance and security systems at labs, industrial sites, and airports. On the medical front, nanosensors can also be used to accurately identify particular cells or substances in the body.
On the Horizon
These are just a few of the thousands of ways that nanotechnology impacts society. Important nanotechnology achievements seem to be announced almost daily. For example, researchers at George Washington University have discovered a way to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into high-yield carbon nanofibers that can be used in manufacturing.
“Such nanofibers are used to make strong carbon composites, such as those used in the Boeing Dreamliner, as well as in high-end sports equipment, wind turbine blades, and a host of other products,” says chemistry professor Stuart Licht, who led the research team.
The process is powered by a hybrid system consisting of solar cells and a thermal energy collector that draws very little energy. Licht estimates that if the process was scaled up to cover a physical area less than 10 percent of the size of the Sahara Desert, within a decade it would reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to pre-industrial levels.
When asked about nanotechnology’s greatest potential for improving the state of the world, Markus Antonietti, director of Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, responded it was the purification of air and water.
“The technology already exists to fix the atmosphere,” he says. “But there also needs to be a focus on education and getting information to the public at large. Most people still don’t know about these technologies. The best part is that all of this could happen immediately, if we simply spread the information in an understandable way. People don’t read science journals, so they don’t even know that all of this is possible.”