Before you start reading this article I want you to take a strand of your hair and look at its tip- hold that image in your mind! In our world of rapid technological advancements you may have encountered the term “nanotechnology”. Most often, the term is layered in obfuscation and pseudo-scientific jargon until it loses all meaning. So it seemed important to bring forth the true nature of the technology and also present some of the path-breaking research that is currently going on in the field, across the world.
Nanotechnology is referred to as a field that involves the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular and submolecular scale. A nanometre- the common unit of measurement when working with nanotechnology- is one-billionth of a metre. A visualization of how tiny this is can come from the strand of hair you plucked earlier, the diameter of a human hair strand is, on average 80,000 nanometres. So the scale we work on is extremely small. An approximate correlation for conceiving the size of a nanoparticle is provided in figure 1 below. But what is so special about working with nanoparticles? And, how are they helpful for everyday activities?
Figure 1: Nanoparticle scale correlation
We all know that matter is made up of small particles called atoms and these atoms are arranged in a specific way to provide matter with its physical and chemical properties. Now let’s say we have a glass which has a definite use- to hold a liquid. But what’s one thing that can hinder its usability? Well, the glass could break, making it absolutely useless. But is there a way to make this glass unbreakable? Nanotechnology allows scientists to re-engineer the naturally occurring pattern of the constituent atoms to make the glass unbreakable. This is what nanotechnology is about- the manipulation of matter that results in customizable properties.
While most of the path breaking developments have been fairly recent, the genesis of this technology it can be traced to 1959, when the renowned physicist Richard Feynman, presented it in a talk titled-“There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. Feynman described the possibility of synthesis via direct manipulation of atoms. In the following years various other scientists like K. Eric Drexler, Gerd Binning, Heinrich Rohrer etc influenced the growth and development of this field by developing technologies like ‘Scanning Tunnel Microscopes’ to see nanoparticles. Scanning Tunnel Microscopes are used to see surfaces at an atomic level, the invention was so revolutionary that it earned Binning and Rohrer the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1986.
Figure 2: Renowned physicist Richard Feynman
But perhaps the place where nanotechnology has the most potential is medicine. It is being used for more effective drug administration to cancer patients. This is a positive development as hitherto, the biggest disadvantage of chemotherapeutic drugs has been the inability to target specific cells, resulting in substantial damage to healthy cells which manifests as the adverse side effects in patients. By using nanotechnology, researchers have been able to attach special RNA strands to nanoparticles and fill the nanoparticle with a chemotherapy drug. The RNA strands are only attracted to cancer cells thereby mitigating the possibility of damage to other cells.
Nanotechnology is also being used in fabrics. Nanoparticles added to conventional materials have allowed scientists to manufacture water and stain resistant fabrics. In the energy sector nanotechnology is being used to make solar panels with more absorption capacity. It can also help design water treatment technology that converts polluted water into drinking water.
Figure 3: An animated view of nanoparticles being used in medical science
While nanotechnology appears to have substantial applications, it is important to tread cautiously. Manipulating matter at the atomic level can result in catastrophic problems as matter is highly unstable at the atomic level. Recently, scientists found that nanoparticles had the potential to cause permanent lung damage. Luckily, they were also able to find a solution to the problem. Nanotechnology has the potential to provide us with cost effective solutions to a lot of problems but it is important to mitigate the potential for harm.
About The Author
Shalini Guleria is currently pursuing her Masters in Tissue Engineering where her research is focused on developing better treatment and detection techniques for Cancer. She is presently associated with Scion Research, New Zealand and holds a Bachelor's Degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering from the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Shalini has won two consecutive national awards at the prestigious Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards for engineers and scientists. Apart from sciences, she is also a highly talented artist.