Nanotechnology - An Introduction, History, Potential Benefits and Social Implications of Nanotechnology

Topics Covered

What is Nanotechnology
History of Nanotechnology
How are Nano-Products Made?
The Potential Benefits of Nanotechnology
How Does Nanotechnology Fit with Life Sciences?
The World-Wide Status of Nanotechnology
The Social Implications of Nanotechnology

What is Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is technology distinguished primarily by the scale at which it acts: one billionth of a metre, or one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. Activities on the nanoscale are essentially those that involve individual atoms or molecules. Therefore, nanotechnology can be referred to as the artificial manipulation of atomic or molecular objects or processes. In the simplest terms, nanotechnology is engineering at the atomic or molecular scale.

Examples of important activities on the nanoscale occurs around us every day in the natural world, examples include photosynthesis and the creation of energy in the human body. The potential for scientists to recreate these nanoscale processes in both the biological and non-biological arena is now becoming a reality all around the world.

The ability to work on this incredibly small scale creates opportunities in a wide range of industries, most notably manufacturing, health sciences and environmental management.

Nanotechnology can be regarded as an aspect of all scientific disciplines – physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, materials science, engineering – rather than a new field of science. It has significant potential benefit to all industries, rather than being an industry of itself.

History of Nanotechnology

Since the late 1950's and a key speech by the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman in 1959, it has been hypothesized that we can manipulate individual atoms and molecules. This hypothesis developed into a provocative vision with the publication of K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation, the Coming Age of Nanotechnology in 1990.

In fact, some applications of nanotechnology date from the early Roman ages. The Lycurgus Cup is one example, whereby gold nanoparticles present in the glass cause this ancient object to change colour when subjected to different angles of light.

However, it is really only in the last two decades equipment has become available to allow work to be undertaken at the nanoscale. With the development of highly powered microscopes, such as scanning electron microscope, transmission electron microscope, atomic force microscope and scanning tunneling microscope, and an ever-growing knowledge of the physical interactions of molecules and atoms, the concept of nanotechnology has become a material reality. Also, the ability to simulate nanoscale transactions has helped enormously in knowledge sharing and prioritisation of efforts in a new scientific field where the possibilities are seemingly endless.

How are Nano-Products Made?

Nanotechnology is generally being approached from two perspectives; one that builds up objects and particles by combining atomic elements; the other that uses tools and equipment to create mechanical nanoscale objects. Manufacturing methods have generally been quite basic when dealing with micro-particles - it's like we've been building sandcastles by heaping up piles of sand with a bucket and spade.

Nanotechnology will allow manufacturing of the future to manoeuvre individual components – atoms and molecules - to build precise, complex structures and to combine those structures with other particles to create new mechanisms of extraordinary strength or flexibility or durability or lightness. If we can specify the molecular structure of an object or part of an object, nanotechnology and the laws of physics are the foundation stones for allowing us to build it.

Building at a nano-level creates the potential for high resource efficiency - every element of the end product would be utilized and there would be little redundancy or wasted materials. The resulting size of the devices also allows movement into places (for example the bloodstream) and be used in ways (for example cell repair) that have only been imagined in the past.

The Potential Benefits of Nanotechnology

There are many examples of possible applications of nanotechnology developments. These include new materials, new medical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and environmental processes and devices; new electronic devices; new sensors; and new computing paradigms. The ability to exploit the atomic and molecular properties of materials allows the development of a variety of new functions for current products.

It is not unfeasible to develop paints that repair themselves when chipped, or for computers the size of blood cells with tiny wireless transmitters to report on the health of a patient without requiring surgery, or for nano-scale cleaning particles to identify and fight contaminants in our waterways… not unfeasible but also not in the near term. But it is exactly this far-reaching potential of nanotechnology that is now making it one of the most important areas of science, and one of the most commercially exciting.

How Does Nanotechnology Fit with Life Sciences?

When working at the nano-scale the distinction between the various scientific disciplines disappears. Biological reactions all involve combinations of atoms, molecules and microscopic particles, governed by physical and chemical processes. Nanotechnology therefore also provides a new basis for innovation in the life sciences, in particular the emerging sciences of biotechnology, genomics, proteomics (defining how proteins work in the human body), stem cell research; as well as the well-established fields of agriculture, environmental management, clinical medicine and medical device manufacturing. All of these are experiencing widespread research and investment interest.

The World-Wide Status of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology applications are a reality today. American car manufacturers have been using nanotubes to improve the safety of fuel-lines in passenger vehicles for over a decade, and the electronics industry has been relying on nanotubes in its packaging material to better protect goods and to aid the removal of any electrical charges before they can build to disruptive levels. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and European countries including Scotland and the Netherlands have also played influential roles in the development of nanotechnology capabilities - and the technology continues to be of world-wide interest.

The potential for more broad-based nanotechnology applications will come from a better understanding of how particles operate on a nanoscale and how biological and non-biological particles can be integrated - research and development continues in these fields and many others. There is still a way to go before we fully understand the workings and potential applications of the assembly of atoms and how to make these processes scalable, profitable and standardised (and therefore able to produce predictable and consistent outputs).

Around US$2 billion is being invested annually in nanotechnology developments around the world, with nearly 40% of this in the USA. Japan is a major contributor, as are the European Governments and major industrial economies such as Singapore, Taiwan, China.

The Social Implications of Nanotechnology

In addition to the required development of supporting technology, there also needs to be the acceptance of nanotechnology as a new idea. Like many new concepts, nanotechnology is evolving from the world of pure science-fiction to pure science as myths are dispelled and ideas are tested and proven feasible. In the absence of all answers, it is human nature to supplant existing knowledge into any information voids that exist around a new technology. Whether these 'old' premises can be appropriately applied to nanotechnology are yet to be tested, but until the required new knowledge is gained, any new technology is open to speculation, misinformation and wild imaginations.

As with all emerging technologies, a successful future for nanotechnology will only be achieved through open sharing of ideas and research findings, a thorough testing of the capability boundaries, and frank discussion of fears and failings. Over the last year there has been increased public awareness of the opportunities in nanotechnology, and media interest in its implications. Most major national nanotechnology organizations are now including discussion of the social and ethical implications of nanotechnologies in their mandate.

This content was provided by NanoVic (Nanotechnology Victoria)

Copyright Nanotechnology Victoria, AZoNano.com

Date Added: Aug 21, 2009 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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