What is Nanotechnology?
Although the range of scientific endeavours that involves the use or study of nanotechnology gets bigger every year, it is difficult to find a definition which covers every aspect. In simple terms the prefix nano indicates something with extremely small dimensions and this gives us an insight into what nanotechnology is really all about. A nanoparticle size analyser using Dynamic Light Scattering technology has already been developed which can measure particles as small as <1 nm to 6 μm.
When you consider that the measurement of a metre, as defined by the International Standards Organisation, as ‘the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second’ and that a nanometre is 10- 9 of a metre you will develop an idea of the dimension in which this particular science works.
Think of electrons and the scale at which they exist and then imagine scientists who work with physical products that can only be measured in these extremely small scales and you have an idea of what nanotechnology really is. It is working with matter at the molecular level and includes the scientific ability to manufacture items from these extremely small building blocks so that they eventually become high performing products.
You get a clearer understanding when you consider the types of products that are being developed.
Nanotechnology enables scientists to build machines which have the scale of molecules, they can be a few nanometres wide, in other words smaller than a cell, yet perform functions that would normally be expected of a computer. The science-fiction notion of submarines the size of a pinhead that can travel through the human body to perform complex medical operations are closer to the truth than might have been expected when this novel idea was dreamt up.
It is generally thought that nanotechnology has the capacity to provide improved efficiency for machines and processes in every facet of life. However there is also concern that making things smaller may also introduce dangers and risks that we dont yet understand. As more and more materials are being produced at nano sizes, the need for understanding nano-toxicology increases. A good example is titanium dioxide, which is an ingredient in sunscreens. Sunscreen manufacturers are using titanium dioxide powders with smaller particle size because it is more transparent and more effective at blocking UV radiation from the sun. However if the particles are too small then they can pass through the skin and get into the blood stream. As yet, scientists dont fully understand the negative effects of having these nanparticles in the human body.
Over the next 20 to 30 years the development of nanotechnology is likely to exert more and more influence in the world of science and the impact will become more apparent in a relatively short space of time.