Nanoparticles are, by definition, tiny: Collections of molecules or even just atoms, less than 100 nm wide – smaller than 1/100th the size of a grain of sand. These nanoparticles offer a surprising range of properties that can be different from larger quantities of the same substance – typically enhanced strength, chemical reactivity, or electrical conductivity.
The public may perceive nanotechnology as a new field, but there are many examples of established uses. For example, diagnostic immunoassays using gold nanoparticles have been available since the 1960s.1 Many nanotechnology products mimic naturally occurring biological processes or structures, which makes sense when you consider that evolution has had a 3 billion-year head start on humans for designing and testing manipulations at nanoscale. During the past 30 years, however, increased interest and funding in nanotechnology has led to rapid developments in all areas of science and engineering, including chemistry, materials, energy, medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, food, electronic devices, and consumer products.2
The average person already encounters nanotechnology in a range of everyday consumer products – nanoparticles of silver are used to deliver antimicrobial properties in hand washes, bandages, and socks, and zinc or titanium nanoparticles are the active UV-protective elements in modern sunscreens.3 The contents of your bathroom cabinet may contain micellar or liposomal products that use nanospheres to trap dirt or deliver medicines or skin care. Carbon nanotubes are one hundred times stronger than steel and are lighter, making them ideal for sports equipment such as bikes or tennis racket.3 The average office worker has improved display screens on desktops, portable and handheld electronic devices, and memory chips with increased density thanks to unseen nanotechnology. Those lucky enough to have an office in a glass tower may enjoy a view out through a self-cleaning window, and in their breaks enjoy a super-fizzy drink from a nanocomposite plastic bottle, designed to stop carbonated beverages from going flat. And no need to worry if they spill it on their suit because it’s probably coated with nanoparticles of silica to make it water and stain repellent.
For the librarian, nanotechnology presents exciting possibilities for information storage, in a branch of nanotechnology that goes way beyond microprocessors and physical storage devices. Researchers are looking at ways to use DNA to store information, in a process called Nuclear Acid Memory (NAM).4 Recent breakthroughs saw the storage and retrieval of archival-quality versions of music and a short GIF in DNA form. This development is incredible when you consider that, in the right conditions, DNA will keep for thousands of years and takes up very little space.4
As with any new scientific developments, nanotechnology is not without concerns, with key issues being health, safety, and environmental aspects.2 Sharing research and data in nano fields will help to further our understanding and advancement.
But if we get that right, where can this tech take us?
In 2010, researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on graphene – a sheet of carbon just one atom thick, which they first isolated six years previously.5 Graphene is the first two-dimensional material. But it is also the strongest and most conductive material known to man. Some experts predict that applications of graphene could have an impact on the scale last seen with the Industrial Revolution. 5 That seems like something worth watching quite closely.
- Chan et al. Patients, here comes more nanotechnology. ACS Nano 2016;10:8139−8142.
- Cheng et al. Nanotechnology Overview: Opportunities and Challenges. In: Nanotechnology: Delivering on the Promise Volume 1. ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2016.
- Brunning. Everyday uses of nanotechnology. Chemical & Engineering News 2016.
- Groot. The libraries of the future will be made of DNA; January 2018.
- The Story of Graphene. http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/explore/the-story-of-graphene