Editorial Feature

Who Discovered Nanoparticles?

Nanoparticles (NPs) are tiny materials utilized across multiple sectors, including medicine, agriculture, environment, and electronics, due to their unique physical, biological, mechanical, optical, and electrical properties. This article explores the discovery and evolution of nanoparticles and the broader field of nanotechnology.

Who Discovered Nanoparticles?

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Historical Applications of Nanoparticles

NPs are materials with nanoscale dimensions ranging between 1 and 100 nm.1 They are classified based on shape, size, and other properties. NPs can be metallic, non-metallic, polymeric, and ceramic. Their high surface-to-volume ratio and small size contribute to their unique properties.

The use of NPs has been traced back to the fourth century AD. In 1990, the Lycurgus cup from the British Museum collection was analyzed using transmission electron microscopy (TEM). This cup is regarded as the oldest and most popular renowned example of dichroic glass, where the display of two colors was caused by nanoparticles measuring 50–100 nm in diameter. X-Ray analysis revealed the glass was crafted using silver and gold in a 7:3 ratio, along with 10 % copper.2

During the late medieval period, church windows displayed luminous red and yellow colors due to the incorporation of gold and silver NPs into the glass. The glittering and glazes found in the ceramics of the 9th–17th centuries were due to the use of silver and copper NPs.3 From the 13th to the 18th centuries, cementite nanowires and carbon nanotubes provided strength and resilience in “Damascus” saber blades.2

Inception and Evolution of Nanotechnology

The concept of nanotechnology was introduced by American physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman in 1959. In his lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” presented at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he highlighted the possibility of using machines to construct smaller machines at the molecular scale.4 

Feynman is recognized as the father of modern nanotechnology. He envisioned significant advancements in science through nanotechnology, especially in medicine and materials science. He hypothesized that tiny machines could be programmed to perform complex tasks like repairing cells.

However, Feynman highlighted the potential risks of nanotechnology, particularly the challenges in controlling the nanosized machines. If NPs are not handled cautiously, they could cause potential harm to people and the environment.

In 1974, Norio Taniguchi, a Japanese scientist, was the first to define the term nanotechnology, describing it as the processes of “separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule.”5

In 1986, K. Eric Drexler published the pioneering book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology,” which discussed general concepts and methods for synthesizing NPs. This book is considered foundational to the concept of molecular engineering.

In 1991, Drexler also co-authored “Unbounding the Future: the Nanotechnology Revolution,” introducing terms like “nanobots” and “nanomedicine” for the first time, highlighting their potential in medical applications.2 

Modern Techniques Used in the Advancements of Nanoparticle Research 

After their discovery, nanostructures were synthesized using top-down and bottom-up methods. NPs developed using these methods vary in quality, speed, and cost.6

The top-down method involves breaking down bulk materials to nanoscale sizes, utilizing modern techniques such as precision engineering and lithography. Precision engineering is commonly employed in the microelectronics industry to synthesize NPs. In industrial settings, cubic boron nitride and sensors control the size of NPs. Lithography is used to pattern a surface using ions, light, and electrons.7

In the case of bottom-up methods, nanostructures are created atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule using physical or chemical techniques. These strategies primarily focus on modifying and controlling the self-assembly of molecules or atoms. Positional assembly, another method, involves placing a molecule or atom at an exact location to optimally synthesize NPs with desirable characteristics.8

The field of nanoparticle research saw rapid acceleration following the invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) by physicists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory.2 STM is used to image and manipulate surfaces at the atomic scale by applying a tunneling current that can break or induce chemical bonds.

The invention of scanning probe microscopes (SPM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM) also played a significant role in the progression of nanotechnology research.9

TEM has been pivotal in studying hollow graphitic tubes or carbon nanotubes (CNT).10 Due to superior strength and properties, CNT has been exploited in many fields of science and research. Currently, CNTs are used as composite fibers in polymers to improve the thermal, electrical, and mechanical properties of the bulk product.

Carbon dots (C-dots) were accidentally discovered in 2004 during the purification of single-walled CNTs. C-dots exhibited low toxicity and good biocompatibility and have been applied in biosensors, bioimaging, and drug delivery.11

The rapid progress in nanoscience has significantly benefitted computer science. Nanotechnology has enabled a reduction in the size of large, conventional computers to small, portable laptops. Currently, machine learning algorithms and models have helped design more efficient nanostructures.12

Shaping Nanotechnology Discourse

Since its inception, nanotechnology has rapidly spread across various scientific and technological fields. It is considered an ‘enabling technology’ and could start a new industrial revolution. The broad-scale applications of NPs have led to the creation of many new subdisciplines, such as nanotoxicology, nanomedicine, nanoelectronics, and nano-ethics.

The categorization of nanomaterials based on dimensions has evolved to include one-dimensional, very thin surface coatings, two-dimensional nanotubes and nanowires, and three-dimensional quantum dots and nanoshells.

In addition to technological breakthroughs, governments and policymakers have played a crucial role in shaping the nanotechnology discourse. The National Nanotechnology Initiative, funded by the US government in 2000, was the first and biggest nanotechnology research and development program.

Considering the wide-ranging applications and the volume of ongoing research worldwide, nanoscience could help address many global issues. 

More from AZoNano: How Are Nanopores Used in Protein Analysis?

References and Further Reading

  1. Jeevanandam, J., Barhoum, A., Chan Yen San, S., Dufresne, A., Danquah MK. (2018). Review on nanoparticles and nanostructured materials: history, sources, toxicity, and regulations. Beilstein J Nanotechnol. doi.org/10.3762/bjnano.9.98
  2. Bayda, S., Adeel, M., Tuccinardi, T., Cordani, M., Rizzolio, F. (2019). The History of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: From Chemical-Physical Applications to Nanomedicine. Molecules. doi.org/10.3390/molecules25010112
  3. Chari CS, Taylor ZW, Bezur A, Xie S, Faber KT. (2022). Nanoscale engineering of gold particles in 18th century Böttger lusters and glazes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2120753119
  4. Adya, AK., Canetta, E. (2014). Nanotechnology and Its Applications to Animal Biotechnology. Animal Biotechnology. doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-416002-6.00014-6
  5. Aflori M. (2021). Smart Nanomaterials for Biomedical Applications-A Review. Nanomaterials. doi.org/10.3390/nano11020396
  6. Khan, I., et al. (2019). Nanoparticles: Properties, applications, and toxicities. Arabian Journal of Chemistry. doi.org/10.1016/j.arabjc.2017.05.011
  7. Khan, Y., et al. (2022). Classification, Synthetic, and Characterization Approaches to Nanoparticles, and Their Applications in Various Fields of Nanotechnology: A Review. Catalysts. doi.org/10.3390/catal12111386
  8. Kumar, S., Bhushan, P., Bhattacharya, S. (2017). Fabrication of Nanostructures with Bottom-up Approach and Their Utility in Diagnostics, Therapeutics, and Others. Environmental, Chemical, and Medical Sensors. doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-7751-7_8
  9. Tseng, AA., Li, Z. (2007). Manipulations of atoms and molecules by scanning probe microscopy. J Nanosci Nanotechnol. doi.org/10.1166/jnn.2007.624
  10. Harris, PJF. (2018). Transmission Electron Microscopy of Carbon: A Brief History. C. doi.org/10.3390/c4010004
  11. Dugam, S., Nangare, S., Patil, P., Jadhav, N. (2021). Carbon dots: A novel trend in pharmaceutical applications. Ann Pharm Fr. doi.org/10.1016/j.pharma.2020.12.002
  12. Wahl, CB., Aykol, M., Swisher, JH., Montoya, JH., Suram, SK., Mirkin, CA. Machine learning-accelerated design and synthesis of polyelemental heterostructures. Sci Adv. doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abj5505

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Dr. Priyom Bose

Written by

Dr. Priyom Bose

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

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