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Nanotechnology is cropping up more and more in the news, on TV and in science lessons. But is it just a buzzword? A fad that is here today, gone tomorrow? Or is there anything useful in studying stuff you can't really see?

Nanotechnology: just small stuff right? Wrong! Really small stuff with a huge amount of potential.

Nanotechnology isn’t just small, it’s unimaginably small. Sugar cubes and beetles and people under five feet are small.  Nanotechnology is “small” on the same scale that Lord Voldemort is a bit narky from time to time. Consider the thickness of a piece of paper; roughly 0.1mm or 0.0001m. One nanometre (nm) is 10-9m; 100,000 times smaller. A human red blood cell measures 7,000nm across. But nanotechnology operates at a scale between about 0.1 and 100nm.

What’s the point of things being that small?

Surely there’s a limit to what really small technology can do? You’re still thinking big. Nanotechnology is not just everyday technology made minuscule - what use would your mobile phone be if it was so small you couldn’t see the keys?

In actual fact, the possibilities for nanotechnology are endless. With sufficiently fine tools, scientists can control “nanosystems” and use them to mop up pollution, store information, target cancer cells and even build motors for cars too small to be seen with the naked eye.  
Why is smaller better?

Okay, so a 4nm long car doesn’t have too many obvious applications.  It’s purely a demonstration of what nanotechnology can do. But there are a number of good reasons for making things minute. And nanotechnology doesn’t just mean small stuff. It also means big stuff made from small structures. For instance, some materials manufactured using nanotechnology are incredibly strong, stronger even than diamond or steel, and yet extremely light. This is because the manufacturing process works at the level of atoms and can make the bonds between them very short, so they are packed tightly together.

The advantages of tiny technology are perhaps most apparent in medicine. New small drugs and devices will be able to reach the places that larger equivalents can’t. For instance, a miniature dialysis machine has been developed that can be implanted inside patients suffering from kidney failure.  Radiation therapy in cancer treatment is also an early form of nanotechnology.

Nanodrugs deliver medicine directly to the cells and tissues that need it, which means any nasty side effects are limited strictly to the site of the disease. Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer-like disease most commonly associated with AIDS patients, can be treated with a nanodrug called Doxil®. In each particle, a tiny quantity (just 10,000 molecules) of the active ingredient, doxorubicin, is trapped inside a lipid membrane, which ensures safe and highly targeted delivery to the lesion.

What else can you do with nanotechnology?


Nano circuits for the future? Photo: Rodolfo Clix/SXCYou can use nanotechnology processes to build small satellites and space probes. Smaller satellites mean less mess if they pack up in mid-orbit and less hassle getting them up there in the first place. And NASA are currently using nanotechnology to build new small probes that will be able to explore other planets. 

Cosmetics companies are using nanoparticles to package up anti-ageing chemicals and take them further below the surface of the skin, where they can really get to work on wrinkles.

As nanotechnology progresses, data storage will become more compact and more inventive. You might soon be able to store thousands of files – images, documents, music - on your wrist watch.

Other more bizarre ideas include minute alcohol sensitive ‘nanoflowers’ made from zinc oxide, which could be used to catch drink drivers; ‘nanocoatings’ for  self-cleaning windows and ultra-light tennis balls; stain-repellent clothing made from ‘nanofibres’; and a ten micrometer long ‘nanoguitar’.

Okay, okay, so what’s the catch?

For obvious reasons, some concerns have been expressed with regards to nanotechnology’s use in cosmetics – what are these invisible particles burrowing into my pores? - and health. The jury's still out on whether carbon nanotubes and buckyballs (tiny carbon "footballs") are damaging to humans. There have been some rumblings that the tiny particles might be toxic to cells.  But importantly, because of its size, nanotechnology is pretty clean.

More from the Null:

- Interesting - Wi-tricity: cordless power
- Strange - Dark matter: universal glue
- Cool - Fridges: not magic, but science

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26 Nov 2010
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