Why Researchers Are Still Betting Big on Nanoscience

The following is an adapted excerpt from the report “Top 10 Trends Driving Science,” a look at the social, political, and economic forces affecting researchers in 2017.

Nanoscience is the study of materials’ properties at sizes smaller than one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is the development of the ability to manipulate materials one atom or molecule at a time. Together, these two disciplines make up one of the most buzzed-about topics in all of science. Across the globe, scientists are betting that small materials will have big impacts in the near future.

Nanoscience offers “significant promise for future advances in problems related to energy, the environment, and biology,” says ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces Editor-in-Chief Kirk Schanze.

At the same time, nanodisciplines are often misrepresented. Based on popular news articles, you’d be forgiven for assuming that nanoscience is a new field, filled with virtually limitless potential. In truth, formal nanoscience is at least 150 years old and it’s far from a unitary discipline. Nanoscience is a part of a wide variety of fields, depending on the application. Interesting nanoresearch is being done in subjects as diverse as agriculture, biology, engineering, materials, medicine, physics, photonics, regulation, toxicology, and many more besides.

“The explosion of research on nanoscale artificial photonic motifs comprising plasmonics, metamaterials, and metasurfaces has allowed the ability to sculpt the flow of light and heat in materials at the nanoscale and in ways not possible with natural materials,” says ACS Photonics Editor-in-Chief Harry Atwater.

If the ideas behind nanoscience are nothing new, then why is nanoresearch having such a surge in activity? Some limited studies of the properties of nanoparticles were possible in the 19th century, but we’ve only developed the tools needed to manipulate materials at nanoscale in the last few decades. Nanotechnology was made possible in the 1980s, with the development of advanced microscopes that made it possible to manipulate a substance one molecule at a time. In the 21st century, new tools have allowed scientists to begin to put theory into practice in ways that generate headlines.

“Experimental and computational tools are now at a point where new materials can be designed via modification of an existing scaffold or the design of novel scaffolds from the ground up. This will afford new structural and catalytic materials that will be able to address contemporary issues in catalysis, energy conversion, energy storage, etc.,” says Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling Editor-in-Chief Kenneth Merz.

Now applications of nanotechnology are turning up in a variety of fields. Some of the most interesting applications are in the medical world, where nanoparticles could someday be used for everything from testing to targeted delivery of medicine. This is a particularly interesting application in cancer treatments, where the side effects of chemotherapy drugs can often be nearly as devastating as the disease they seek to treat. “I feel that with the rise of nanomedicine, nanoparticles for both diagnostics and drug delivery and going to continue to become more and more important,” says Justin Gooding, Editor-in-Chief of ACS Sensors.

At the same time, the ability to co-engineer nanomaterials and biomolecules is opening up new doors for biological researchers. ”After many years of creating nanosystems that can interact with proteins and nucleic acids, researchers are finding new ways to co-engineer these systems to obtain new synergies, applications, and sometimes even emergent properties,” says Bioconjugate Chemistry Editor-in-Chief Vincent Rotello.

The potential of nanoscience and nanotechnology remains very high. Unfortunately, the hype surrounding the field is every bit as great. Advocates for nano-related research should fuel interest in the field by trumpeting the real-world advances made possible by nanotechnology, such as smartphones. At the same time, they must work to temper science fiction-fueled-expectations that nanotechnologies will solve every problem in the near future.

Read more articles in the Top 10 Trends Driving Science series and download the full report.

If you have comments or questions for the author of this post, please e-mail: Axial@acs.org.