The practical application of this can be demonstrated with a simple example. Consider a piece of coal and a diamond. Both items are made of the same material — carbon atoms — but the arrangement of those atoms means that only one can be used as a cheap source of energy, while the other is for the heart of an engagement ring.
Prior to the arrival of nanotechnology, mankind had to content itself with how Mother Nature arranged these materials. Now with the emergence of nanotechnology, the possibility exists to manipulate atoms — the basic building blocks of our physical world — to create entirely new materials, devices and structures.
The second important aspect of nanotechnology is size. The prefix “nano” is derived from the Greek term for “dwarf ” and represents one-billionth of a meter. To put this in perspective, consider the following analogy. If every character in the Encyclopaedia Britannical were 10 nanometers in width, the entire 30,000-page document could be replicated in the period at the end of this sentence.
New Materials Properties
This is important because when materials are reduced to less than 100 nanometers, the realm of quantum physics takes over and materials begin to demonstrate entirely new properties. For instance, materials are stronger, lighter and more magnetic or have enhanced optical or conductive properties.
These two benefits have a host of realworld applications for the food industry (not to mention virtually every other major industrial sector). Everything from plastics that are stronger, lighter and more flexible to materials that can change colour depending upon external or internal conditions are now well within the realm of possibility.
Longer term, researchers are working on packaging materials that can self-repair (to understand how this might work it is helpful to consider the human skin which “self-repairs” itself after it is cut) to nutraceutical devices so small and sophisticated that they can recognize individual cells in the human body and deliver vital nutrients or drugs directly to the site.
These possibilities, together with projections that nanotechnology will be the basis for $1 trillion in products and services and 2 million new jobs by 2013, are the primary reasons why this past December, President Bush signed into law a $3.7 billion bill officially establishing the National Nanotechnology Initiative.