Nanotechnology: tiny tech, massive impact

By Adam Murphy

10 November 2014 - 08:13

As we celebrate World Science Day for Peace and Development today, Adam Murphy, Ireland's 2014 winner of science communication competition FameLab, looks at the benefits nanotechnology can bring to our lives.

When I ask people 'what is nanotechnology?', I often hear something about little robots that in the future will be able to move through the body, healing all ailments. The truth is actually far simpler, and far more incredible.

What nanotechnology is and when it first appeared

Nanotechnology describes the creation of any application on the nanometre scale. One nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre. At that stage it gets a little tricky to get your head around the sizes. I’m continually amazed that we can control the shape and size of things that small. Not only that, but nanotechnology is everywhere. And it’s been around for a very long time.

The Romans were some of the first people to use nanotechnology. Stained glass is stained because of nanometre-scale particles of gold embedded in the glass. Different sizes and shapes are what give the different colours of stained glass that you can have. We’ve come a long way since then.

How we use nanotechnology in our everyday lives

Today, nanotechnology is involved in every facet of life, from sunny holidays to toiletries to smartphones. Sunscreen contains zinc oxide nanoparticles, which act as bodyguards against UV rays, taking hits so you don’t have to. And silver is an excellent antibacterial, so silver nanoparticles are now used in many deodorant sprays.

That doesn’t begin to mention all the nano-sized materials that exist inside your computer and your smartphone: the transistors, the little electronic switches within microchips that allow us to have the computers we do are all on the nanoscale. Without nanotechnology, you wouldn’t be reading this.

Nanotechnology and medicine

I think one of the most exciting fields for nanotechnology is in medicine. There’s incredible research being done to use nanomaterials for both detection and treatment of disease. We’re learning to cram nanomaterials full of fluorescent dyes that we can modify to latch on to disease markers in blood, so each tiny bad molecule in blood will be lit up like a Christmas tree, making detection much easier. We’re also learning how to best fill nanomaterials with chemotherapy drugs, which we can modify to latch on to a tumour alone, killing the cancer and lessening the horrible effects chemotherapy can have on the body.

Nanotech and the creation of graphene

Another promising application is in the use of graphene. Graphene is a nanomaterial that consists of a single sheet of carbon one atom thick. For its make-up it’s incredibly strong and has very promising properties when it comes to conducting electricity. Not only that, it’s flexible. So it’s possible in the future that we could have flexible solar cells for energy production, and flexible screens in your pockets!

Changing the world for the better

Nanotechnology is incredible, and so is the research being done to create and control these amazing nanomaterials. It has already changed the world for the better and in the future it will only continue to do so. Personally, I can’t wait to see the big changes that these tiny things will bring about.

The EU-funded nanOpinion project, of which the British Council was a consortium member, aims to engage members of the public with nanotechnology and to determine how this might be done most effectively. The report Nanotechnologies: A Subject for Public Debate is available as a pdf.

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