At a glance – nanotechnology

Think small

In a speech in the late 1950s, renowned physicist Richard Feynman discussed the concept of learning more about materials by reducing them to their smallest possible form. His ideas laid the foundations for nanotechnology, the scientific field which manipulates materials at an atomic scale. It wasn’t until 1974, however, that the term itself was coined by Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi. During the 1980s, enabled by advances in equipment, nanotechnology emerged as a research area. It now has applications within medicine, energy, FoodTech, environmental science, transportation, IT and security.

A nanometer itself is one billionth of a metre. To put this into perspective, that’s the same as comparing a marble to the planet we live on. There are two main processes for nanotechnology. First, the ‘top down’ approach which reduces larger entities, and secondly, the ‘bottom up’ approach which creates materials from molecular components. So, what’s the point of manipulating materials on such a tiny scale? In electronics, nanotechnology could facilitate the continuation of Moore’s Law, as devices become even smaller and lighter. This will also disrupt the consumer market. Another key beneficiary is healthcare. Using nanopore sensors, the University of Illinois has created a cancer identification system, which could improve the accuracy of all disease detection. In terms of environmental science, a carbon nanotube mesh has been developed to help clear oil spills, and nanopillars have been used to lower the cost of renewable solar energy by replacing expensive silicon cells. Future applications include nanorobotics and programmable matter.

Unsurprisingly, it’s incredibly difficult to alter materials on an atomic level. Investment and research is key to unlocking the full potential of nanotechnology. Despite the possible advancements, there is debate over economic and environmental implications. Some are even worried that nanorobots will take over the planet. Scientific and governmental organisations are currently discussing suitable regulations to quell these fears. With so much interest surrounding Materials Science, nanotechnology is key to enabling developments in smart production. . . in other words, it will essentially change how all industries work.