Have you wondered how cell phones became faster, sleeker and more affordable at the same time? Or, how the latest airplane engines are lighter and faster at the same time? In fact, the size and weight of most products and devices we use is reducing while its quality and usage is improving. There is one answer to all these developments – nanotechnology.
This term definitely isn’t new to you. You’ve heard it in school, in the news and also in the sci-fi films and series. However, I don’t expect you to know how it exactly works. Neither do I expect you to know that it’s literally everywhere – not just in electronic devices or automobiles.
Once you start going through this article, you’ll realize that we’re actually using nanotech everywhere today. This includes something as simple as a sunscreen to something as complicated as adaptive camouflage.
A Brief Introduction to Nanotechnology
Let’s break the terms into two – nano and technology. Have you heard of the term “nano”? It’s a term that we usually use for something that’s really small. And by small, we don’t mean a broken nail or a grain of sand. It’s something that’s small enough to be visible even through a magnifying glass – an atom or molecule.
To understand how small “nano” is, we need to know it as a unit of measurement first. 1 nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A strand of your hair would approximately be 60,000-80,000 nanometers thick.
Now, coming to the size of an atom – 1 atom is 0.1 nanometer small. And in nanotechnology, that is the scale we usually work on.
So, what is the meaning of nanotechnology? It is using technology on an atomic or molecular scale for producing materials and goods. In other words, you start manipulating matter through its very root – its atomic structure.
How Does it Work?
Have you seen the movie Avengers: Endgame? When Ant-Man came out of the quantum realm, he explained how some scientific theories don’t apply at the sub-atomic level. That’s precisely what nanotech is all about.
When you’re manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, you’ll discover changes in its color, weight, texture, surface area and even strength.
I’ll give you an example from a natural phenomenon – carbon and its different forms. You’ve seen coal, graphite and diamonds. They’re all nothing but carbon, with a different atomic structure. You already know how drastically different they are and yet they are the same element.
If nature can do it, so can man. We do so by using methods like diffusion, ion implantation and chemical reactions.
Also known as nanomaterials, nanostructures are substances that have at least one dimension that measures between 1 – 100 nanometers.
Types of Nanomaterials
There are several elements and techniques that we use to make nanomaterials. It is nearly impossible to count the number of nanomaterials we have and the ones that we’re still developing.
You know how the nanoscale works – 1 nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. And when you say you can measure a material in the nanoscale, it means that it measures between 1-100 nanometers.
Depending on the number of dimensions that can be measured in nanoscale, there are 3 types of nanomaterials:
Nanoparticles: You can measure all the 3 dimensions of these nanomaterials in nanoscale.
Nanofiber: You can measure 2 external dimensions in nanoscale.
Nanoplate: You can measure only one external dimension in nanoscale.
Now, we come to the elements that we use to make nanomaterials. Here, we have 4 categories:
We know that coal, graphite and diamonds are naturally occurring forms of carbon. Apart from these, we have created 2 more. These are carbon nanotubes and buckyballs.
Carbon nanotubes are made using graphene (a form of carbon). They are lightweight, have high tensile strength, are thermal and electrical conductors and resistant to corrosion. Thus, they have several uses in the electronic and electro-chemical industry.
On the other hand, buckyballs are molecules made out of 60 atoms of carbon. They have a soccer ball-like shape and are hollow from the inside. This makes them good for making lubricants and medicines.
Apart from carbon, we also use metals like iron, gold, platinum, titanium, zinc and silver for making nanoparticles. Mostly, we use them in compound form. The two most common nanomaterials include quantum dots and gold nanoparticles.
Quantum dots are tiny crystals that transport electrons. When hit by UV light, they reflect florescent colors too. These two properties make them helpful for conducting electricity and medical treatment. On the other hand, we use gold nanoparticles mainly in healthcare, mainly for detecting microbes and tumors.
These are complex nanoparticles that are made using molecular synthesis. These molecules have 3 layers – an inner core, a layer surrounding it and an outer surface molecule. We mostly use them for making medicines and drugs.
I’ll break this word into 2 to make you understand what they are – nano and composites. Basically, it’s a composition of 2 or more nanomaterials. They have 3 sub-categories:
Nanoceramic Matrix Composites: Also known as nanoclays, they have heat resistant and flame-retardant properties. This makes them useful for coating substances – mostly packing materials.
Metal Matrix Composites: One of the main reasons why nanotechnology is helpful is because it can make a material lighter and stronger at the same time. Metal-based nanomaterials are combined together to get lighter and stronger substances for building aircraft vehicles and reducing heat in server farms.
Polymer Matrix Composites: These are mainly used for making industrial plastics and tissue scaffolds (structures that help to grow skin, tissues and organs). This makes them extremely useful for the medical industry.
How are Nanomaterials Made?
There are plenty of ways in which you can make nanostructures. Any chemical composition can be changed under high temperature, pressure and other similar circumstances. Broadly, there are 2 ways of working at a nanoscale level:
Top-Down or Milling Process: For making metallic or ceramic nanoparticles, metal oxides are broken down in high-energy ball mills. As the stress and energy here is intense, the chemical composition of the substance changes. The process has been used to make computer chips out of graphene.
Bottom-Up Process: These are more complex processes where we produce nanoparticles in gas phase, liquid phase or droplet formation. The chemical synthesis takes place at high temperatures for making oxide, ceramic or organic nanoparticles.
Types of Nanotechnology
Now, you probably have a brief idea of how nanotech works. It has applications in all fields – manufacturing, healthcare, environmental care and power supply. Considering these applications and the environment in which nanomaterials are made, there are 2 types of nanotechnology:
Wet Nanotechnology: As the name suggests, it involves creation of nanomaterials in liquid phase or droplet formation. This is mostly done for producing nanostructures that you need for biological or pharmaceutical purposes.
Dry Nanotechnology: This is just the opposite of wet nanotech, where the process of making nanomaterials doesn’t involve an aqueous environment. They’re made in gas phase or using milling process, mostly for the purpose of manufacturing consumer and industrial goods.
Some Nanotechnology Examples that You’ve Probably Seen
Nanotechnology is used in several industries to make products that benefit us. Various nanomaterials that are produced usually help in making eco-friendly, cost-effective and medicated products. Following are some of the applications of nanotechnology:
Nanotechnology in Electronics
As we learnt, when we work at the molecular, atomic or sub-atomic scale, the rules of physics and chemistry as we know don’t apply. Any kind of physical and chemical change can appear in the new material you form. One of them is electricity conduction. Others include change in color, texture and surface area.
So, here’s how nanotech is used in electronics:
1. Ultra-HD Display
Quantum dots are known for reflecting colors better when UV light hits them. Due to this property, they’re used in the current flat screen LCD TVs and monitors. Another nanomaterial used for better picture quality for screens of TV, tablets and smart phones are organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs).
2. Computer Parts
Computer transistors have gone smaller and faster as the new ones are made with nanomaterials. They even have better memory space. Other computer parts that have evolved with nanotech include magnetic RAM, flash memory chips and e-book reader displays.
3. Flexible Gadgets
Electronics are now becoming foldable, bendable, stretchable, wearable and rollable. All of these gadgets like smart watches, electronic paper, tattoo sensors, heart monitoring t-shirts and foldable smart phones are all possible due to graphene and cellulosic nanomaterials.
4. Copper Nanoparticles
For fusing electronics during assembly, copper nanoparticle suspensions are used as a safer and cheaper alternative. Apart from that, copper nanoparticles are also used to develop solders for space missions.
5. Protecting Layers on Electronics
As some nanomaterials develop antimicrobial properties, they’re used as a coating on keyboards and cell phone covers.
6. Ink for Smart Printing
Nanomaterials are also used to make conductive inks for RFID, smart cards and smart packaging.
7. Optoelectronic Devices
We are using carbon nanotubes like graphene and light emitting nanofibers o make devices like blue lasers, solar cells and optical fibers.
8. Smart Phone and Tablet Screens
Touch screens made of idium-tin oxide sheets (a nanomaterial) are cheaper, more flexible and consume less power.
9. Data Transmission
Silicon nanophotonic components have helped in increasing the speed of data transmission between circuits. In fact, some of these are even faster than fiber optics.
10. Nanotech Battery
These batteries have nanoparticles coating the electrode, increasing the surface area and allowing more current to flow in the battery. Thus, they have a longer working duration, takes lesser time to recharge and a better shelf life. To top it, nanotech batteries are lightweight too.
Nanotechnology in Agriculture & Food Production
What is the use of a technology that does more harm than good? We’ve done a lot of harm so far by depleting resources and polluting the environment. However, one of the worst things we’ve done to ourselves is poisoning our food while growing them.
Nanotech is making it simpler for farmers to now get back to organic growth. Here’s how:
11. Monitoring Sensors
Apart from biological control of pests and pathogens, nanotech sensors are a great help for monitoring the same in crops. You can use the same for monitoring livestock too.
12. Growing Crops in Adverse Conditions
If you wish to grow a crop that seems impossible in the soil or weather you have, nanotech could help. Working at a molecular level is not just possible with the non-living resources, but with living species too. Upon altering the genetic composition of the crop, you can grow it in lesser water or in a soil that has a lot of salt.
13. Nanofertilizers and Nanopesticides
We all know that fertilizers and pesticides are the products that have contaminated our food during its growth itself. So, why not remove the toxicity and then add it to the soil? These altered products will increase nutrition and production levels, also protecting crops from pests and microbes. At the same time, they do not contaminate the soil and water.
These are devices that you can use for giving vaccine, fertilizers and pesticides more efficiently in the field.
15. Food Processing
Scientists are developing nano-structured food ingredients and additives to make food healthier and tastier. Some nanoparticles are also helpful in removing chemicals and pathogens from food.
16. Food Supplements and Animal Feed
Nano-sized powders can increase nutrition in food without changing its taste or color. We use it for making animal feed as well as nutrition supplements for crops.
Nanotechnology Devices for Healthcare
The field of healthcare has so much more than just medicines. It involves research, diagnosis and monitoring also, which mostly work with technology today. By using nanotech devices in these fields, treatment of diseases has also become more efficient than before. Here’s how:
17. Optical Tweezers
These are tiny glass beads that help to study malaria. By separating the beads and bringing them back together with laser, you can study the elasticity of infected red blood cells. This helps to understand how malaria is spreading in the body.
18. Alternative to Chemotherapy
We know how cancer treatment can also kill you. Chemotherapy kills the healthy cells along with the cancer ones too. This is the reason why scientists are developing nanotech sensors that can help detect cancer cells in the body. On the other hand, we have nano cages that deliver medicines in specific areas of the body. Thus, combining these technologies, we can make cancer treatment more efficient.
19. Improving Vaccines
We are using nanotech for developing vaccine scaffolds so that more strains can be covered with lesser resources. Another technique that we are developing is to provide them without needles.
20. Nanotech Devices for Better Diagnosis
Diagnosis tools are getting more and more efficient and nanotech has its role to play there. Scientists are trying to develop devices that can detect diseases on the basis of single-molecular detection. Another device that we are developing can study the build-up of plaque in arteries. On the other hand, you have plasmonic nanobiosensors that can detect diseases at a much earlier stage.
21. Developing Nanoparticles for Treatment
It’s not just the detecting and monitoring devices that are helping us – nanoparticles can help provide treatment and can be used in manufacturing drugs too. For example, gold nanoparticles are useful for treating cancer and many other diseases. Research is also going on for using nanotech to increase growth of nerve cells and repair damaged spinal nerves.
These are devices that doctors can inject in your body to provide treatment to your eyes. They’re capable of providing medication to your eye and performing micro-surgeries on the eye, retina and the surrounding area.
Other Nanotechnology Products
We are utilizing nanotechnology to its full potential – for healthcare, environmental care and enhancing product quality. Apart from electronics, medication and food, following are some other products where we use nanoparticles:
Earlier, sunscreens used to be heavy and way too creamy on the face. Today, most sunscreens have 2 nanoparticles added to them – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They are more efficient in blocking UV radiation while they also feel lighter on the skin. Many other cosmetics also use nanoparticles for better coverage, cleansing or absorption.
24. Water Purifiers
Nanotech usually reduces the size, weight and cost of making a product. At the same time, it also works better. Currently, scientists are developing nano-filters that can remove virus and other microorganisms from water to make it drinkable.
25. Stain-free Products
Nanoparticles can act as a coating on various products to make them waterproof and stain proof. This applies for fabrics, furniture and car paint. Silica nanoparticles sprayed on fabrics can additionally prevent bacteria growth too. Meanwhile, for furniture we have carbon nanoparticles that additionally reduce their flammability.
Learn More About Nanoscience with Nature Nanotechnology
Frankly speaking, for a concept that is still growing, you cannot learn everything from one article or even 10 more like these. What you just found out was hopefully new and interesting to you, but there’s so much more to nanotech that you’ll still keep finding out. In fact, there are things scientists are still discovering too.
If you want to go into the depths of nanoscience and nanotechnology, then check out this journal published by the Nature Publishing Group – Nature Nanotechnology. It covers everything that has been discovered about nanotech so far along with concepts still under R&D.
Did we inspire you enough here to dig deeper into the world of nanotechnology?