Editorial Feature

Nanotechnology Defined - What is Nanotechnology All About?

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Nanotechnology is quickly moving to the forefront of public awareness—press coverage is growing, campaigners are demanding for moratoriums, and politicians are turning up to defend it.

When people think of nanotechnology, they tend to imagine unusual kinds of devices: medical applications or nanomachines wherein miniature machines circulate in the bloodstream removing fat deposits found in the arteries. But, in reality, nanotechnology is not a futuristic technology and has already become a part of people’s lives today. It is not essentially about engineering small things, but rather, ensuring big things function better, with less wastage.

Novel sports equipment, textiles, and cosmetics are already entering the market based on progress in nanotechnology, as are airbag pressure sensors, CDs, and inkjet printers.

Nanotechnology Defined

Perhaps, nanotechnology can be ideally defined as the ability to design new attributes by manipulating features at a very minute scale—at or around the scale of a nanometer. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter; or approximately 1/80,000 the thickness of a human hair. The use of materials at the “nano” scale predates even the applications that are reaching the market at present.

The Romans used nanoparticles to create glasses, but these were also used during the Renaissance period to create ceramics. While certain elements have been used before, it is the understanding of nanotechnology and how it can be applied which is new. The nanoscale has become accessible by a further diminution of existing microsystems and by the application of new physical instruments and processes.

Opportunities in Nanotechnology

Working at the nanometer level provides a number of opportunities for developing novel products; and any product, which has an attribute, or characteristic involving certain manipulation or measurement at or below 100 nm (or 0.1 of a micrometer), comes under the umbrella of nanotechnology.

These comprise medicines (coated drugs for targeted drug delivery), paints (with nanoparticles), foodstuffs (“taste-burst” foods), packaging (specifically adapted polymers that prevent contamination and sense decay), clothing (stay-clean textiles with nanofibers), and new materials for automotive, aerospace, and construction applications (lightweight but sturdy, heat-resistant nanocomposites).

Nanotechnology Uses Research Findings on a Commercial Scale

Nanotechnology combines the findings and processes from the living (genetic engineering and biotechnology) and non-living worlds (electronics, chemistry, and materials processing) with the endless potential to manufacture economical, advanced products. Probably, almost all products one can think of within the next 10 years (or less!) will have at least a few nanometer features. A US source quotes that in 10-15 years, $1 trillion in products worldwide will be influenced by nanotechnology.

Resources in Nanotechnology

New and possibly disruptive technologies always create a great amount of debate and publicity, and it is usually tough to isolate the fact from the fiction. This is a specific problem with nanotechnology as, particularly in the press, the real science repeatedly gets intertwined with fears about grey goo and rampaging nanobots. It is, thus, essential to divide the wheat from the chaff, because most of the concerns have little or nothing relating to nanotechnology.

Only research and knowledge will help to dispel these apprehensions. According to one report, articles citing the word “nanotechnology” have increased from 500 in 1999 to nearly 6,000 in 2002. There is certainly plenty of information available, although, by its very nature, the amount may not compare with the more standard engineering domains, which in certain cases have been studied for numerous decades.

Government Resources in Nanotechnology

Globally, governments are currently spending close to £2.5 billion on R&D in the nanotechnology space, and this figure will continue to grow. The United States is heading the way, and complete information can be found on its National Nanotechnology Initiative website (www.nano.gov).

The website is operated by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This initiative spent more than US$ 847 million on nanotechnology in 2004, and is the most detailed governmental website on nanotechnology, complete with facts, reports, and figures. The agencies involved with the initiative include NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy.

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