What is Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is the science and technology that deals with objects on the nanoscale, known as nanomaterials- materials have sizes within the 100 nm range in at least one dimension (length, width, or height). Nanotechnology and nanoscience are the study and exploration of the concept and application of nanomaterials. As a highly interdisciplinary field, nanotechnology is applicable to all other science and technology fields, including physics, chemistry, biology, and materials science.
Everything on earth and the earth itself is made up of atoms. Everything we own, from our houses to our clothes to our food to our bodies, is composed of atoms. But it is not possible to see the atoms with bare eyes; even it is impossible to see the atoms with the conventional microscopes that we use in high schools and colleges. As a result, it is difficult to imagine how small the nano is! Human hair is usually 50 to 100 times thicker than nanomaterials. In other words, if a nanometer were the size of a marble, a meter would be the size of the entire globe. As a unit of measurement, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
Evolution of Nanotechnology
The journey of nanotechnology started with the famous speech of renowned physicist Richard Feynman in a meeting of the American Physical Society at California Institute of Technology (CalTech) on December 29, 1959, entitled "There's plenty of room at the bottom”. According to Feynman, things can be controlled and manipulated at the molecular and atomic levels. However, the field was still unnamed for more than a decade until Professor Norio Taniguchi introduced the term ‘Nanotechnology’. Almost another decade later, in 1981, the scanning tunneling microscope allowed us to see objects at the atomic level.
Cornea Palivan, a Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Basel, and a member of the Swiss Institute of Nanotechnology recently said, ‘For some, the term “nano” conjures strange scenarios out of science fiction.’ This is especially true in a developing country like us where scientific research is far behind. However, we have been observing and using nanoscience and nanotechnology in our daily life since our childhood; it’s just the fact that we don’t know about it.
Since our childhood, we have been observing a plethora of examples in nature related to nanoscience. Some of them are very interesting! For example, we have always seen the gecko walking on the ceiling against gravity. This always amazed us, and I guess almost 90% of us as kids asked our elders how the gecko could crawl on the ceiling. The obvious replies were either ‘by nature they are created this way or ‘geckos have something special which allows them to walk on the ceiling’. Scientists took years to understand that the ‘special’ thing is the nanostructure of the hairs present in geckos’ claws. Because of this, they interact with molecules on the ceiling to create force. Since this force is physical and not permanent, geckos can easily detach their claws and crawl on the ceiling. Nanoscience is also present in dew drops on the grass in the winter morning or water droplets on lotus leaves. Thanks to the micro and nanostructures of the leaf's surface, which allowed the water droplets to bead up and roll off from the leaves. This feature creates a small cavity on the surface of the leaf that traps air and keeps the water molecules away from the leaf's surface. A few other fascinating examples include the lightning of fireflies, the beautiful colors of butterflies, etc.
Although the field of nanotechnology and nanoscience is very new, people have been utilizing nanomaterials for centuries. There are several examples of nanomaterials from ancient times, including the green color of the Greek cup Lycurgus of the 4th century, which revealed a beautiful red hue in the light due to gold-silver nanoparticles; gold and silver nanomaterials were also used in early medieval glass windows to create vibrant colors; the lightweight, resilient and sharp blades of the Damascus sabers from the Islamic world were also made with nanomaterials. It's simply the fact that the people back then didn't realize that the techniques they used to create the piece of art fell under the umbrella of Nanotechnology and Nanoscience.
It may seem as if nanotechnology is the technology of the future. However, we are unknowingly using nanotechnology and nanoscience in our daily lives, and it is gradually becoming an essential and indispensable part of our lives. Some of the very common products we are using in our daily life may include fit bands that track our body parameters (temperature, calories, heart rate, etc), improved and effective UV-radiation blocker sunscreen, waterproof and stainproof clothing, less flammable furniture, self-cleaning car windows, stronger and lighter tennis racquets, and bouncy tennis balls, computers and smartphones with nano-range chips, and hundreds of different stainless and water-resistant home appliances.
Prospects of Nanotechnology
Nanomaterials possess highly impressive properties compared to their larger counterparts. For example, lighter weight, high strength, greater chemical reactivity, improved control of the light spectrum, and so on. Engineers and scientists are relentlessly working on this technology to make miniaturized devices that can take advantage of these enhanced properties. Their work involves fabricating sensors that have endless applications in a wide range of sectors, including biological, electrical, and infrastructure. Many companies around the world are investing in electroceuticals that will act as 'doctors in our body', in which nanodevices will interact with the body signal to control organ function, post-surgery healing, monitor inflammation, treat tumors, and even treat different types of cancer. Another aspect of nanotechnology is self-healing structures, where if a crack appears in a structure containing nanomaterials, the nanomaterials will migrate to fill the crack. This could benefit several sectors ranging from aircraft cockpits to microelectronics.
One of the most promising prospects of nanotechnology is tackling climate change. To fight against climate change, we need an alternative source of energy. Nanotechnology has already been offered by creating batteries for cars as well as solar cells to harvest electricity from sunlight. Scientists and researchers are working on promising nanomaterials and their concepts that will enable objects in the future to harvest energy from their environments, such as movement, light, temperature fluctuations, glucose, and other sources with high conversion efficiency.
Apart from the near-term developments, there are some visionary projects which can have a tremendous positive impact on our lives. For example, the transportation that can transport us anywhere and everywhere on earth in seconds, bio medics such as in vivo surgical systems that may improve the human life span to a significant extent, spacecraft for inter-planet traveling, and dust-sized super intelligent and super-fast computers.
Lastly, two famous quotes from visionary scientists sum up the entire prospect of nanotechnology- "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”- Albert Einstein. Another one is from the father of nanotechnology, Prof Richard Feynman, “We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.”
Author: Ph.D. Candidate, The Australian National University.