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Reasons for optimism – nanotechnology

Summary:
Nanotechnology has already transformed many materials, and is in the process of tailor-making many more to our specifications. It is a reason to be optimistic that newly developed materials will be enabling us the achieve things thought impossible less than a generation ago.It is basically a technology that manages to manipulate the molecular structure of materials to alter their properties. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, about 80,000 times thinner than a human hair. This is the scale on which atoms and the molecules they make are measured, and technology at this level involves controlling individual atoms and molecules. It has already enabled revolutionary applications. New forms of carbon have been developed, including nanotubes and nanopillars that are used to make solar

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Nanotechnology has already transformed many materials, and is in the process of tailor-making many more to our specifications. It is a reason to be optimistic that newly developed materials will be enabling us the achieve things thought impossible less than a generation ago.

It is basically a technology that manages to manipulate the molecular structure of materials to alter their properties. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre, about 80,000 times thinner than a human hair. This is the scale on which atoms and the molecules they make are measured, and technology at this level involves controlling individual atoms and molecules. It has already enabled revolutionary applications.

New forms of carbon have been developed, including nanotubes and nanopillars that are used to make solar panels more efficient. Graphene, a single atom thick, is harder than steel and lighter than aluminium. So-called “first generation” passive nanomaterials are used in surface coatings to allow golf balls to fly straighter and to enable windows to be self-cleaning. Bandages infused with silver nanoparticles enable cuts to heal faster. Clothing impregnated with nanoparticles has been developed to last longer, stay cleaner, and enable people to keep cool in hot weather.

Steel embedded with nanoparticles makes possible beams that are lighter and thinner, yet stronger. A nanocomposite coating for oil industry pipes makes them more resistant to corrosion. Nanotechnology makes its mark in electronics, energy, the food industry and in air and water purification.

One of the most exciting and promising applications is in the field of biomedicine, where it plays a role in tissue engineering, replicating with nanoparticles the body’s cell structure in order to help it repair damaged tissue. It is playing an increasing role in biosensors to give early warning of developing dangers, and in accurately targeting drug delivery to precise locations. Some nanomaterials are being specifically designed to seek out and destroy cancer cells without damaging healthy ones. This raises the prospect of the elusive ‘cure for cancer’ long thought impossible.

Optimism about nanotechnology has been tempered by concerns about possible hazards brought about by absorption of nanoparticles into the body. It has led to safety procedures being incorporated into the manufacture and use of nanoparticles, and into monitoring of their possible effects. One alarmist notion was that self-replicating nano machines would consume the environment and turn the entire planet into a “grey goo.” Prince Charles raised this prospect, calling on the Royal Society to investigate the risks, to the puzzlement of UK nanotechnologists unaware of that particular scenario.

Some progress in nanotechnology breakthroughs now goes unannounced, lest predatory NGOs use it in scare stories to raise funds with, as they did with genetically modified organisms, causing politicians to impose arbitrary controls. While it makes sense for nanotechnologists to shun the limelight, it does mean that progress is slower than it would be if it were all in the public domain.

It does mean that some of the breakthroughs will be announced suddenly when complete, rather than while still under development. We can look forward to periodic unveiling of advances in nanotechnology that give us access to better materials, better medicine, and which improve many of the things we routinely do by enabling us to do them better.

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