In today’s world of expanding science we are confronted with not only new technologies but new concepts that stretch the bounds of human influence in the world around us. Nanotechnology is on the forefront of a new and potentially life changing field of science. As defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, “Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers” (Nano.gov, 2012). This allows the manipulation of material on an atomic level presenting many possibilities not possible in the past.
The idea of nanotechnology, although not referred to as such, came from a physicist named Richard Feynman. He presented his ideas at a conference held at the California Institute of Technology in 1959. During the conference Feynman presented a lecture on scientists being able to manipulate the atoms and molecules of objects. With the development of the scanning tunnel microscope in 1981 scientists where able to view individual atoms as a rendering of the space they occupied, thus birthing the nanotechnological field of science.
One of the heaviest areas of focus in regards to nanotechnology is Nano-medicine. The application of nanotechnology on medicine is vast. Major areas of focus in medicine are curing diseases, tissue repair, gene therapy delivery systems, targeted drug delivery, improved implants and the development of Nano machines that can perform surgery. Imagine having heart surgery performed by microscopic machine injected into your blood stream. These Nano-machines can be programed to do very specific tasks in the human body such as seek out cancer cells and other diseases present in the body. (Karunaratne, N. D, 2006) By using Nano-carriers physicians are better able to administer medication as the Nano-carriers can cross the blood-brain barrier and enter cells which can be a problem when creating chemical compounds for use in medicine. The most effective Nano-carrier currently is a “natural polymer nanoparticle” because of its biodegradability, high absorption rate and reduced side effects. (Karunaratne, N. D, 2006) The applications of nanotechnology are so vast and promising they have received the attention of The National Institute of Health resulting in the creation of the NIH Roadmap of Nano-medicine Initiatives. This program is designed to promote research and development in nanotechnology such as micro-chips, drug delivery systems and cancer treatments. The future clearly holds many new possibilities in the areas of medicine.
Another facet of nanotechnology is its application in engineering. With the ability to manipulate materials at an atomic level, scientists are able to develop new materials and systems of operation. An example of this is the creation of heterogeneous Nano structures and/or super molecular systems. (Roco, M. C, 2011) The benefit of heterogeneous nanostructures is that they are constructed of more than one material making them more versatile in their use. Super molecular systems study chemicals of subgrouping molecules and their chemical interactions. Whereas traditional chemistry examines the stronger forces such as convelent bonding, super molecular chemistry focuses of the weaker nonconvelant chemical reactions between molecules. In short these two systems of engineering allow for the understanding and construction of versatile Nano machines capable of manipulating the chemistry and therefor structure and use of molecules. These are just two aspects of Nano-engineering that will lead us into a future of increased health and sustainability.
One are of personal interest is nanotechnologies application to space exploration. Our ability to manipulate materials on a molecular level allows for the creation of new and improved composite metals that could help defuse heat, store and/or convert energy or help reduce fuel expenditure by reducing weight. One of the recent developments is that of nanotubes. These are strings of carbon atoms arranged in crosshatch pattern then rolled into miniature tubes. When doing this the nanotube takes on special properties otherwise not present. The benefit of these tubes in relation to space exploration is that they have 1/6th the weight of tensile steel yet are 100 times stronger. They also can be used as conductors and/or semiconductors. One of the most beneficial aspects is their ability to conduct electricity and heat. (Barry, L. P, 2011) An interesting advancement is the development of chemical sensors using nanotubes. The NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology has developed and placed one of these sensors on a rocket that was scheduled to launch this year. The sensor is capable of detecting chemicals in the atmosphere and space in quantities as little as a “few part per billion” (Barry, L. P, 2011). This could prove to be very useful in monitoring our environment and how events outside our atmosphere affect the planet.
Space travel may benefit from the use of nanotechnology to create more efficient computer systems and materials yet the problem of fuel consumption and weight have always been a major issue when considering space exploration. The use of nanotechnology of fuel cell development may alleviate this problem in the future. A fuel cell is simply put a device that uses hydrogen fuel and oxygen to create electricity. An area of concern is the cost of producing these fuel cells as the catalysts can be expensive. Take for example the platinum used as one of the catalysts. With implementation of nanotechnology scientists may be able to create a suitable and cheaper replacement material with equal or increased conductivity and electrochemical activity (Saari, J. 2010). On example of this innovation is a platinum free catalyst produced in Italy by Acta SpA, a leader in clean energy production specializing in pressurized hydrogen systems. (Actagroup.it, 2012) From the creation of reactivity increasing membranes to nanocoatings that increase the life of a fuel cell the applications of nanotechnology could foreseeably be the proverbial “leap” in technological advances that thrusts us into a new technological era.
Nanotechnology is clearly shown to have potential beneficial applications across both the health and technological fields of study and advancement. Yet what are its possible applications to our environment? One area of study currently being explored is that of water. In today’s world clean drinkable water is in high demand. How can nanotechnology help us create a cleaner water supply? Research on nanotubes has garnered significant results when applied as filters. The greatest benefit is their ability to remove toxic substances such as arsenic, oil, bacteria, viruses, chemicals and other biological and non-biological materials (Alpana, M 2010) It has also been reported that they are more efficient in that the amount of pressure need to push water through them is much less and allows for easier “back-flushing” (Alpana, M 2010) Again the ability to manipulate materials on an atomic level has given us the possibility of changing and repairing our environment like never before.
As scientists are able to use nanotechnology to alter the atomic and molecular structure of matter in so many areas of influence it is only natural that they would gravitate towards one of the most important areas of sustainability for the human race, this area is that of agriculture. There have been many instances of biotechnology being used to augment plant structure to repel pests, increase yield and increase nutritional value. However a more obscure area of nanotechnology and its application can be found in the research of Professor Paula Hammond, a chemical engineer at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). In the area of food preservation Hammond has developed a plastic bag containing nanoparticles that inhibit the oxygenation of organic material, thus reducing the rate at which they decompose. This can help many farmers that may have to store some of their crop for a period of time before selling. (Trafton, A 2010) From reducing the use of pesticides, increasing crop yield and viability to prolonging shelf life nanotechnology is showing itself to be a major player in sustainable agricultural practice.
It is apparent that nanotechnology has numerous applications and benefits to our environment, health and economy. Yet as with anything the glamour of new discovery can often be blinding to the future repercussions. Do we risk expanding into this field of science so quickly that we make reckless mistakes that may eventually harm the state of our physiological and environmental health? As bright a future as this new field of technology is it would be prudent to question its future impact and promote thorough testing of new advancements before mainstream use.
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