Nanotechnology is rapidly moving to the forefront of the public consciousness – press coverage is on the increase, campaigners are calling for moratoriums and politicians are coming out in its defence. When many people think of nanotechnology, they think of exotic kinds of devices: nanomachines or medical applications in which tiny machines circulate in the bloodstream cleaning out fat deposits from our arteries. However, far from being a future technology, nanotechnology is already with us, and is not necessarily about manufacturing small things, but rather, making big things work better, with less waste. Novel textiles, sports equipment and cosmetics are already on the market based on advances in nanotechnology, as are CDs, air bag pressure sensors and inkjet printers.
Nanotechnology can perhaps be best defined as the ability to engineer new attributes through controlling features at a very small scale - at or around the scale of a nanometre. One nanometre is a billionth of a metre; or about 1/80,000 the width of a human hair. The use of materials at the ‘nano’ scale predates even the applications that are hitting the market now. Nanoparticles were used by the Romans to make glasses, and during the Renaissance period to make ceramics. However, although some elements were used in the past, it is the understanding of nanotechnology and how it can be used which is new. The nanoscale has become accessible both by application of new physical instruments and procedures and by further diminution of present microsystems.
Opportunities in Nanotechnology
Working at the nanometre level offers many opportunities for creating novel products; and any product, which possesses a characteristic, or attribute that involves some manipulation or measurement at or below 100 nanometres (or 0.1 of a micrometre) falls under the umbrella of nanotechnology. These include paints (with nanoparticles), medicines (coated drugs for targeted drug delivery), foodstuffs (‘taste-burst’ foods), clothing (stay-clean textiles with nano fibres), packaging (specially adapted polymers that prevent contamination and sense decay) and new materials for aerospace, automotive and construction applications (lightweight but tough, heat-resistant nanocomposites).
Nanotechnology Using Their Findings on A Commercial Scale
Nanotechnology unites the findings and processes from the living (biotechnology and genetic engineering) and ‘non-living’ worlds (chemistry, electronics, materials processing) with the unlimited potential to manufacture cost-effective, innovative products. It is likely that almost any product you care to think of within the next decade (or less!) will have some nanometre feature, and to quote one US source, in ten to fifteen years, $1trillion in products worldwide will be affected by nanotechnology.
Resources in Nanotechnology
New and potentially disruptive technologies always generate a huge amount of debate and hype, and it is often difficult to separate the fact from the fiction. This is a particular problem with nanotechnology as, especially in the press, the real science often gets entangled with fears about grey goo and rampaging nanobots. It is therefore necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff, as many of the concerns have little or nothing to do with nanotechnology. Only knowledge and research will help to allay these fears. According to one report, articles mentioning the word ‘nanotechnology’ have increased from 500 in 1999 to almost 6,000 in 2002. There is indeed a lot of information available, although, by its very nature, the amount may not compare with the more traditional engineering areas, which in some cases have been researched for many decades.
Government Resources in Nanotechnology
Governments worldwide are now spending close to £2.5billion on nanotechnology R&D, and this figure will continue to rise. The United States is leading the way, and full information is provided on their National Nanotechnology Initiative website (www.nano.gov). This website is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and, as befits an initiative that will spend over US$847 million on nanotechnology in 2004, is the most comprehensive governmental website on nanotechnology, full of reports, facts and figures. The agencies involved with the initiative include the Department of Defence, NASA and the Department of Energy.