Here's a riddle: What's so small that you can't see it, but it's smart enough to run your iPad or stop cancer? If your answer was a microscopic Dr. Sanjay Gupta, well, you'd be right -- in a weird way. But the answer we're looking for here is nanotechnology.
No matter how much we hear about it, nanotech remains something of a mystery. We can't see it, and we certainly can't feel it. Scientists say it will be in our medicine, but it's odd to think of something measured only in nanometers saving your life.
Are we using it in our daily lives and not even realizing it? Better yet, where is nanotechnology? Is the future happening right now, and we're not even aware of it? The answers to those questions go: yes, everywhere and sort of. Nanotechnology has found a place in consumer products, medical treatment, the food industry and so much more. In fact, it's becoming increasingly harder to keep track of where nanotech isn't. And the truth is that the technology's potential is nowhere near being reached. Many of the big breakthroughs are still being worked out in laboratories. And only some of the simplest forms of nanotechnology have really come to the marketplace.
So stick with us as we compile the nanoscale cheat sheet and check out some nanotechnology that may already be in your world and some that may be on the horizon.
Medicine might well be the most exciting area where nanotech can be put to use. For instance with cancer, many different treatments are being developed to attack tumors at the cellular level. Research has shown promising results from using gold nanoparticles against a variety of cancers. The particles are delivered to the tumors, and they heat the cells when shot with infrared laser [source: Bland].
Delivery is the biggest issue with these treatments, specifically in directing the nanoparticles to malignant cells while avoiding healthy ones. Once the delivery system is refined (no easy task!), these particles could create a series of new, noninvasive treatments that kill tumors without any surgical trauma.
One delivery solution may lie in stars, tiny, gold ones that scientists from Northwestern University have been developing. Their star-shaped particles are coated in a drug called a DNA aptamer (a DNA molecule that can stick to specific molecular targets). The nanostars are attracted to proteins on the cancer cells' exteriors. The proteins helpfully deliver the nano-sized invaders directly to the nucleus. Once attached to the nucleus, a shot of light from a laser releases the drug from the nanostars, and it starts working on the nucleus [source: ScienceDaily]. That won't be a pretty time to be a cancer cell.
Whatever the delivery mechanism, nanotechnology may allow doctors to stop brain cancer without physically entering the patient's skull or to attack lung cancer without opening someone's chest [source: Beck-Broichsitter].
No matter what type of computer or device you're reading this article on, you're probably using some nanotech right now. Processors and memory components made with nanomaterials are common on the market, and you can find antimicrobial coatings on keyboards, mice and casings.
In coming years, we might start to see photonic crystals making tablet screens easier to read in daylight by changing the color of reflected sunlight, rather than relying on light projected by the device [source: NanoWerk]. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are already lining up to replace the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen as the universal standard for smartphone displays. And a clear, thin coating of nanoparticles may one day save your smartphone from dying a watery death [source: Dillow].
Pretty soon, your electronics will run up to three times longer on a single charge just because tiny hairs called nanowhiskers are being built into their batteries [source: Ackerman]. By using tin in lithium ion battery anodes (tin is naturally covered in nanowhiskers), the anodes have a much greater surface area, which means they can store more electrons. That means more up time, longer cell phone calls and no more interrupting your Words With Friends benders just to plug in.
Since the early 2000s, the fashion industry has been promising nanotechnology in fabrics. No matter how much indifference the shopping public displays toward T-shirt-powered smartphones, we keep hearing those ideas get tossed around. To be fair, the idea of piezoelectric generators does have some practical points [source: Nanowerk]. Imagine having a tent that could generate enough electricity from small breezes to charge up LED flashlights. Or how about a boat that could reload its batteries with every flap of its sail? Suddenly, nanotech in fabric starts to make sense.
But not all nanotech ideas are received so well. Many questions and concerns have sprung up surrounding a new product for killing odor-causing bacteria in clothing. Nanosilver is exactly what its name suggests, nano-sized bits of silver. Sports clothing designers and laundry procrastinators got excited when they discovered that nanosilver could prevent clothing and other products from developing that post-run funk. The silver particles attract the offending bacteria and basically pop their cells. The problem is that nanosilver kills bacteria indiscriminately, can't be removed at sewage treatment plants (which rely on beneficial bacteria) and has been shown to cause birth defects in fish and other organisms. So washing products treated with nanosilver could have serious environmental ramifications.
In late 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave limited permission to manufacture nanosilver products until its safety could be verified – a decision that has resulted in lawsuits on behalf of the public [source: EPA]. And if that's not a little creepy, the fact that nanosilver is viewed as a pesticide by the EPA will make you think twice before wearing it on your body. Suddenly, laundry day looks much more inviting.
You want a pair of pants that don't absorb water? How about a non-gooey adhesive pad that will let you climb a glass wall? You can buy those nifty trousers in stores, but you'll have to work at the right lab to unleash your inner Spider-Man. Yep, these are two examples of nanotech in real life, but they both existed in nature long before science took notice. Let's take a look.
Consider it safety gear for sloppy eaters: For years, the textile industry has been trying to develop effective stainproof fabrics. It was only when they started using nanowhiskers that all those errant drips and spills really stopped soaking in. If you've ever seen raindrops bead and roll off a lotus leaf – or many other leafy plants that live in soggy areas – then you've seen natural nanowhiskers at work. The leaf is covered with nano-sized hairs that support droplets of water, preventing them from absorbing or sticking to the leaf's surface. By adding nanotubes to the fibers of clothing, manufacturers can create cotton, wool or synthetic fabrics that repel liquid.
As for the wall-walking gear, that's a product of Robert Full's research team at Berkeley. While studying the toes of geckos, they discovered that each toe was covered with yet more nano-sized hairs, although these were so small and plentiful that they used van der Waals forces (intermolecular adhesion) to stick to smooth surfaces [source: Full]. Full, a biologist, and other engineers replicated the gecko feet fuzz and were able to create pads that allowed a human climber to scale the side of a building.
The important lesson here isn't that science is making life safer for cat burglars. Rather, it's that we've barely begun to explore nanotechnology's possibilities, and upcoming developments could come straight from nature. The tough part will be designing products that complement the living world, not harm it.
Food is the area where many people draw the line on their love and interest with nanotechnology. Many people will pay a premium just to ensure that their groceries were organically or ethically grown or both, so it's little surprise that they don't even want to imagine ingesting nanoparticles. So before we get too freaked out, let's look at some practical applications for nanotech in food and other consumables.
Packaging and storage: Nanotech food packaging can allow food to last longer by creating a more airtight seal or even killing bacteria in storage systems. Look around. You'll find plenty of refrigerators on the market that use nanosilver coatings to kill bacteria and even in some reusable food storage containers, too.
Taste, color and nutrition: You can do a lot to food at the atomic and molecular levels to alter its taste, appearance and nutrition. Advocates say this could mean engineered foods will offer more nutritional value in an appealing package (a possible benefit for impoverished areas of the world that don't receive adequate nutrition) [source: IOM]. Meanwhile, naysayers don't want to hear anything further after the words "engineered foods" are spoken.
Improving drugs: Let's take diabetes, for example. Nanotubes could one day replace the pinprick blood test, and nanoparticles in medicine could be engineered to release their medications only when blood sugar levels require it [source: Soutter]. Medicine still hasn't reached that point yet, but it's a promising idea that has ramifications for anyone whose medical condition requires a constant dose of medicine, from HIV patients to migraine sufferers.
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Author's Note: 5 Things You Should Know About Nanotechnology
As a young kid, I was the one boy on my block who couldn't stand watching the movie "Fantastic Voyage" for the reason that I didn't believe that anything useful could exist at that proposed size. The inner workings of the body at those levels were somewhere on par with unicorns and leprechauns who keep large sums of gold safely tucked away at the feet of rainbows. Granted, that was before I had my mind blown by my Biology 101 class. Today, I can't help but geek out when someone starts talking about the natural world functioning at that level, and how we're fixing things like cancer at the nanoscale. Truly amazing stuff!
- Ackerman, Evan. "Tin nanowhiskers triple battery capacity, on the market in a year". DVice. June 5, 2012. (Aug. 19, 2012) http://dvice.com/archives/2012/06/tin-nanowhisker.php
- Beck-Broichsitter, Moritz. "Controlled pulmonary drug and gene delivery using polymeric nano-carriers". Science Direct. July 20, 2012. (Aug. 17, 2012) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168365911011060
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- Institute of Medicine (IOM). "Nanotechnology in Food Products: Workshop Summary." Institute of Medicine (US) Food Forum. 2009. (Aug. 28, 2012) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK32737/
- Nanowerk. "Nanotechnology shirt may someday power your iPod." Feb. 3, 2008. (Aug. 20, 2012) http://www.nanowerk.com/news/newsid=4513.php
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- Ventura, Jeffrey. "FDA takes 'first step' toward greater regulatory certainty around nanotechnology". U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). June 9, 2012. (Aug. 20, 2012) http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm258377.htm