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Nanotechnology is the understanding and controlling of matter at sizes of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers. Using nanoscale science, phenomenal engineering, technological, medical, chemical, and informational feats are possible (1). However, the applications of nanotechnology do not stop there. As a Finance major, I feel it is extremely important to understand the current and immense future economical possibilities this technology presents. Although it will cause a bang in the market, the more important role it plays is the facilitation and miniaturization of the tasks we perform daily and rely on to survive.
Nanotechnology is essentially “an extension of existing sciences”, only at a much smaller, nano, scale. Nanotechnology only deals with matter at a size of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers (human hair is nearly 80,000 nanometers thick) (2). It covers a whole range of various developments. Although it contributes to many areas of science, chemistry may play the most important role to its use and development.
Chemists are involved in nanotechnology through their work in the making of organic and inorganic nanomaterials for their use in nanodevices.
They also develop “novel nanoanalytical techniques”, manipulate biological molecules such as DNA, and contribute to the evolution of molecular machines (3). Chemistry already deals with “the control of nanodimensional objects and the self-assembly of molecules into larger structures”. Called polymer chemists, they directly affiliate with nanoscience and technology. They deal with the nano approach of “bottom up”. This is the building of nanomaterials into defined, complex structures, atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule. Thus, chemistry forms a base for nanotechnology by providing tailor-made molecules and polymers. Furthermore, they also synthesize clusters and nanoparticles. Chemical catalysis benefits especially from nanoparticles because of their extremely large surface to volume ratio. The application potential of nanoparticles in catalysis ranges from the production of chemicals, to catalytic converters and photocatalytic devices, as well as fuel cells (2).
Nanotechnology’s use in fuel cells could create/promote a hydrogen economy. The major problem with the creation of a hydrogen economy is the safe and cost-effective storage and transport of the fuel. At Rutgers University, researchers are developing a finely textured surface of iridium to be used in the extraction of hydrogen from ammonia. The hydrogen would then be fed to a fuel cell. By using established processes to form ammonia, the liquid could be handled like today’s gasoline. Then, the textured iridium would be used to extract hydrogen from the ammonia. The remaining nitrogen could simply be released back into the atmosphere. The key is that the iridium surface is covered with millions of pyramids with spaces about five nanometers apart. These spaces are where the hydrogen molecules would sit or “nestle” until deposited into the fuel cell (4).
Another influence of nanochemistry is expected on filtration methods. Mechanical or chemical techniques can be used for effective filtration. One class of filtration techniques is based on the use of membranes with suitable hole sizes, whereby the liquid is pressed through a membrane. Nanoporous membranes are suitable for a mechanical filtration. They would consist of pores smaller than 10 nm. This is called nanofiltration. Nanofiltration is mainly used for the removal of ions or the separation of different fluids. Magnetic nanoparticles offer an effective and reliable method to remove heavy metal contaminants from waste water by making use of magnetic separation techniques. Using nanoscale particles increases the efficiency to absorb the contaminants and is inexpensive compared to traditional filtration methods (2).
There are also many uses of nanotechnology for the household. The most prominent application is the already developed self-cleaning or “easy-to-clean” surfaces on ceramics or glasses. Also, common household flat irons have improved smoothness and heat-resistance due to nanoceramic particles. The use of engineered nanofibers makes clothes water or stain-resistant and wrinkle-free. Textiles with a nanotechnological finish can be washed less frequently and at lower temperatures. Nanotechnology has been used to integrate tiny carbon particles membrane and guarantee full-surface protection from electrostatic charges for the wearer (2). Nanotechnology also offers increased UV-protection. “The traditional chemical UV protection approach suffers from its poor long-term stability. A sunscreen based on mineral nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide offer several advantages. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have a comparable UV protection property as the bulk material, but lose the cosmetically undesirable whitening as the particle size is decreased” (5).
As depicted with the table, nanotechnology presents a wide array of potentials. It seems that only imagination can limit these possibilities. The irony is that imagination brings about one of nanotechnology’s greatest concerns. That concern is that of self-replicating artificial nanomachines or “nanite” robots as set out in Michael Crichton’s book Prey. “The resulting media interest in this story should not be allowed to drive an agenda for the whole of nanotechnology. The production of such self-replicating artificial assembler nano-devices is well within the realms of science fiction. Any eventual invention of self-replicating systems would need regulation and this would mirror that needed to regulate the artificial viruses that could be produced by advances in molecular biology” (3). Other concerns are health related. They revolve around the potential consumption, inhalation, injection, or absorption of nanoparticles. These tiny particles are highly mobile once inside the body and may even cross the blood brain barrier. It is unknown how the body will respond or how the nanoparticles will act once taken in. Both positive and negative effects are possible. They could help kill foreign agents to the body, but, they could also cause harm to the body’s immune system in its defense against pathogens (2).
Nanotechnology presents us with many opportunities to better our lives in many different ways. It also has the potential to do harm to our bodies. Accordingly, research and development must be done on the application of this phenomenal technology, as well as on the care and prevention of potential risks and harms.
(1) What is Nanotechnology? National Nanotechnology Initiative. Retrieved June 19, 2006, from http://www.nano.gov.
(2) Nanotechnology. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 20, 2006, from http://www.wikipedia.org.
(3) Nanotechnology-The issues. Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved June 20, 2006, from http://www.rsc.org.
(4) Nanotechnology Could Promote Hydrogen Economy. Lexur. Retrieved June 19, 2006, from http://www.theallineed.com/science.
(5) Nanotechnology in Chemistry: Small Particles, Great Potential? G.I.T. Laboratory. Retrieved June 21, 2006, from http://www.nano.org.