It's Often a Form of Biomimicry
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.