Small but mighty: 6 applications of nanotechnology

Despite its size, nanotechnology is making an industrial impact

The emerging field of nanotechnology has long been thought of as obscure, if not even a little scary. However, nanotech is proving its potential across different sectors, causing businesses to think about how their organisation could benefit from miniscule machines and materials. Here are six areas in which nanotechnology has already shown giant promise.

1) Nanomedicine

Using nanoscale carrier systems, drugs can be delivered in a much more targeted and efficient way. Nanomedicine combines chemical and mechanical properties to help patients and practictioners, seeking to manufacture drugs that reach the intended area much faster than traditional injections or pills. Unlike existing medicines, nanoparticles can cross certain biological barriers within the body.

However, despite countless studies, nanomedicine remains largely theoretical. At the moment, the majority of work on nanomedicine has been confined to clinical trials and is yet to break into mainstream healthcare. Even so, according to a report published by Transparency Market Research, the global market for nanomedicine is projected to reach $177.6bn by the end of the year. Future uses could include treatments for various illnesses like Alzheimers, Cancer, and Diabetes, as well as addressing antimicrobial resistance and nano-engineered tissue.

2) Manufacturing

Much of the discussion around nanotechnology surrounds how it can be used in manufacturing. Carrying out processes at nanoscale reduces costs, improves efficiency, and improves the quality of materials. For example, ArcelorMital produces nanoparticle embedded steel that allows it to make lighter, thinner, but stronger beams and plates. MesoCoat has developed a nanocomposite coating called CermaClad for pipes in the oil industry to provide resistance to corrosion. The coating can be applied at a lower temperature and faster speed than conventional methods, leading to reduced cost and cheaper pipes.

Another interesting nano innovation in manufacturing is nanoscale diamond tips. Working with researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania, Advanced Diamond Technologies has created a new type of nano tip for thermal processing made entirely out of diamond. It sounds excessive, but let's not forget the diamond tips are 10nm in diameter...

3) Energy

One of the main branches of energy where nanotechnology is considered to have particular potential is solar. In nano engineered solar cells, smaller particles and materials with different molecular structures facilitate higher energy absorption. Unfortunately, efforts by NanoSolar to bring nano solar cells to market failed, and the company was forced to shut down in 2013. In more recent years, solar power has received renewed interest. There is now a long list of solar companies that could leverage nanotechnology within their products.

Aside from solar, nanotech is being applied in lithium ion batteries. Candace Chan, an engineering professor at Arizona State University, has developed a method for making batteries safer by replacing the flammable liquid within them with solid, lithium conducting ceramic nanomaterials. Wider use of nanomaterials in construction may also improve the efficiency of both lighting and heating, as nanoparticles are much better at absorption.

4) Electronics

In a world dominated by data, it is vital to handle information quickly and at scale. Luckily, when it comes to electronics, nanotechnology can deliver the smaller, faster, and more powerful chips needed to meet big data demands. Using carbon nanotubes, nanotech company Nantero developed a NRAM (Nanotube Based Nonvolatile Random Access Memory) memory chip to replace high density Flash memory chips.

Intel was also quick to recognise the benefits of nanotech powered electronics. In 2014, the company launched the first 14nm processor for thin, fanless PCs. The Core M chip was 50 per cent smaller and 30 per cent thinner than its predecessor, and further plans were quickly unveiled for a 10nm version. Then, in 2015, a consortium led by Intel's competitor IBM revealed a 7nm test chip. The chip is the result of a five year long, $3bn research project. In other words, thanks to nanotech, Moore's Law lives on.

5) Food

Nanotechnology is helping to solve the global issue of food waste by making food and food packaging more durable and resistant to bacteria. If food lasts longer, less will be thrown away by consumers or rejected by supermarkets. For example, clay nanocomposites are being used in bottles, cartons and packaging films to provide an impermeable barrier to gases like oxygen or carbon dioxide. Containers have been embedded with silver nanoparticles to kill bacteria, and nanosensors are being developed to detect bacteria and other contaminates like salmonella at packaging plants.

At the growing stage, networks of nanosensors and dispensers can be used throughout farms and fields to recognise when a plant needs nutrients or water. The dispensers can then release fertiliser, nutrients, or water as required before the plant shows signs of deficiency. Nanopesticides could reduce the chemical impact on plants by activating only once ingested by an insect.

6) Smart cities

All of the above examples showcase why nanotechnology will be instrumental in building smart city infrastructures. Smart cities create a monumental amount of data which must be transmitted between and within networks. Nano enabled millimetre wave technology like Teraphysics' mmLink is one example of how nanotech can make this much easier, by transporting data without a supporting infrastructure. In 2017, Teraphysics launched a crowdfunding campaign and it has also entered talks with major wireless operators. The company's ultimate aim is to use the nano enabled network to provide a backbone for 5G adoption.

Other applications include the use of nanomaterials in power plants, water treatment facilities, and road infrastructure, as well as the installation of nanosensors to monitor air pollution levels and other environmental metrics.

One small step...

Nanotechnology isn't just about tiny, autonomous robots. Sector wise, healthcare stands out as the most enthusiastic adopter. Recent applications in energy, especially concerning solar, have helped to pique corporate interest in nanotechnology. And, as smart cities move from theory to reality, nanotechnology could provide an answer to data dilemmas. Not only that, but nanotech is already contributing to more sustainable environments. Nanotechnology has moved beyond the pages of science fiction to represent an opportunity for essentially every industry.