The term ‘nanotechnology’ was first coined by Professor Norio Taniguchi in 1974. He was describing semiconductor processes that exhibit characteristic control on the order of a nanometer.
How small is one nanometer? The human hair is approximately 50 micrometers wide. One nanometer is 50,000th of a hair width.
The modern nanotechnology began in 1981 when scientists develop the scanning tunneling microscope to “see” individual atoms.
What Exactly Is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is science, technology, and engineering carried out at the nanoscale, between 1 and 100 nanometers. It can be a complicated topic with new discoveries being made every day.
Nanotechnology can provide unprecedented insights into materials and equipment and is likely to impact various fields, including device physics, material science, supramolecular chemistry, colloidal science, and electrical and mechanical engineering.
The topic can be better explained by providing clear and concise explanations of nanotechnology applications. We have listed some less popular uses of nanotechnology and their advantages, showing how they actually impact our daily lives.
14. Nanotechnology in the Food Industry
Role of nanotechnology in different aspects of food sectors | Credit: Frontiers
Over the last two decades, nanotechnology applications have emerged with the growing need of nanoparticle uses in different fields of food microbiology and food science, including food processing, packaging, safety, identification of food-borne pathogens, and shelf-life extension of food products.
Nanoengineered particles used in the food industry, for instance, minimize the carbon dioxide leakage in carbonated beverages, reduce fat, and enhance nutritional value. They also maintain moisture outflow and control the growth of bacteria in order to keep food fresh.
Smart packaging techniques combined with nanoscale sensors enable the detection of contaminated food and the presence of bacteria and pesticides.
Today, nanoscale ingredients are used to improve the flavor, texture, and color of food. The nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide, and amorphous silica are used as food additives.
In the food industry, commercial applications of nanoparticles are expected to grow at a significant rate due to their novel and unique properties. Thus, human exposure to nanoparticles will continue to increase, and its associated health impact will remain a prime public concern.
13. Molecular Communication
Nanomachines are fully functional devices that can perform numerous tasks such as actuation, sensing, storing data, and computing. In order to be more effective and efficient, these machines should be interconnected in the form of a network.
Molecular communication is the paradigm in nano communication networks, which uses molecules for communication among nanomachines. These systems use the absence or presence of a particular type of molecule to digitally encode data.
It works by delivering molecules into a medium (like water or air) for transmission. The communication signals require little energy and can be made biocompatible. Also, this technique doesn’t rely on specific-size antennas.
Since molecular communication is inspired by communication among biological materials, it offers a wide range of biomedical and environmental applications.
Nano Communication inside the human body, for instance, can have several health applications, such as tissue engineering, enhanced immune system, Brain-Machine Interface, and targeted drug delivery.
Scientists are currently working on models for end-to-end communication between bio-nano machines.
12. Growing Nerve Cells
Image credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock
The ability to regenerate nerve cells in the body could significantly decrease the effects of trauma and disease. Scientists are working on nanotechnology to improve the regeneration of nerve cells.
They have shown how magnetic nanoparticles can be used to generate mechanical tension for stimulating the elongation of axons (or nerve fibers). They have also described how aligned nanofibers can provide a bioactive matrix where nerve cells can regenerate.
Several studies have proved that carbon nanotubes facilitate the full growth of neurons and the formation of new synapses. However, this growth isn’t indiscriminate and unlimited.
11. Better Solar Panels
As the global interest in green energy continues to increase, scientists have continued to study ways to enhance the efficiency of solar cells. Over the last few years, several advances in nanotechnology have been integrated into solar panels to improve efficiency while decreasing its manufacturing and installation costs.
Silicon nanoparticles, in particular, have proven useful: they have low bulk density, active surface state, and unique photoluminescent characteristics. Therefore, these nanoparticles are also used in integrated semiconductors, luminescent display devices, solar energy cells, and lithium-ion batteries.
Recent advances in graphene-based solar cells have resulted in 20% less reflectance and at least 40% more energy conversion as compared to traditional solar cells.
A nano-sculpture created by Jonty Hurwitz
Scientists are becoming artists, thanks to ‘NanoArt’. It’s an artwork done on a molecular and atomic scale. It portrays natural or synthetic nanostructures that are observed by electron microscopes in laboratories.
To create a nanoart, scientists first analyze the textures of molecules and atoms, capture microscopic images of them, and tune the resulting image to produce a unique piece of art. One of the objectives of such arts is to familiarize people with useful tiny objects and advances in their synthesis.
In 2015, Jonty Hurwitz developed a new method for generating nano sculptures using photogrammetry and multiphoton lithography. Hurwitz is a creative artist who is now recognized for the smallest human form ever built using nanotechnology.
9. Medical Diagnostics And Treatment
Nanotech-based diagnostic methods can provide two major benefits –
- Quick testing, which may allow doctors to perform diagnostic tests and start treatment within a day.
- Detection of serious diseases in earlier stages, which can help doctors stop disease(s) earlier, with less damage to the patient.
For example, scientists are developing nanoparticles called NanoFlares to detect cancer cells in the bloodstream. These nanoparticles are designed to bind with genetic targets in cancer cells and produce a fluorescent signal when that particular target is found.
Another good example is nanopore sensors that can identify individual virus particles. Nanopore sensors combined with artificial intelligence techniques may provide a quick, point of use detection of viruses.
The technology can also be used to combat infections: researchers have developed a prototype of catheter dressing which incorporates nanoparticles of chlorhexidine hexametaphosphate. It can inhibit the growth of bacteria and decrease wound colonization. In the near future, these types of molecules could be used in wound care materials to control infections.
8. Improving Fuel Availability
Nanotechnology can address the shortage of fossil fuels (gasoline and diesel) in different ways –
- It can increase the mileage of engines.
- It can efficiently and economically produce fuels from conventional raw materials.
Nanomaterials are exceptional candidates for numerous biofuel systems because of their unique properties such as catalytic activity, durability, stability, the high degree of crystallinity and efficient storage, which could collectively help optimize the overall system.
Nanotechnology combined with gasification, pyrolysis, anaerobic digestion, transesterification, and hydrogenation has been proven to be economical and efficient, but are still mostly limited to laboratories and small scale. They will soon (probably in the next three decades) replace traditional systems at commercial scales.
Several metal oxide nano-catalysts, including calcium oxide, titanium, strontium oxide, and magnesium oxide, have been created with a high catalytic performance for producing biodiesel. Carbon-based nano-catalysts also hold great potential for biodiesel production from various feedstocks.
7. Displays And Optoelectronic Devices
Quantum Dots with gradually stepping emission from violet to dark red | Wikimedia Commons
Silicon nanowires and carbon nanotubes make it possible to develop low-energy consumption displays. Since these nanostructures are highly conductive, they can be used in field emission displays with unprecedented efficiency.
In OLEDs, nanomaterials and nanofabrication techniques are used to manufacture transparent electrodes and pack OLEDs to protect them from external damages (such as water).
Organic light-emitting transistors (an alternative to OLEDs) could open new doors in organic optoelectronics and serve as testbeds to address fundamental photonic issues such as exciton quenching and photon loss.
Quantum Dots — tiny semiconductor particles a few nanometers in size — are both electro-active (electroluminescent) and photo-active (photoluminescent). Its unique physical properties make it a promising material for next-generation displays.
Compared to OLEDs and organic luminescent materials, quantum dots-based materials have a longer lifetime, purer colors, and lower power consumption and manufacturing costs.
6. Computing And Memory Storage
Progression of the manufacturing process of nanometer-semiconductors
With nanoelectronics, computer processors can be made more powerful than what is possible with traditional semiconductor fabrication methods. Scientists are currently studying a number of techniques — including new types of nanolithography — and ways to use nanomaterials, such as small molecules and nanowires in place of conventional CMOS components.
They have been able to develop Field effect transistors using heterostructured semiconductor nanowires and semiconducting carbon nanotubes.
Tech giants began the production of nanoelectronic memory in the early 2010s. In 2013, Samsung produced a 10-nanometer multi-level cell NAND flash memory. In 2017, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company produced SRAM memory using a 7-nanometer process.
5. Quantum Nanoscience
Quantum nanoscience refers to the branch of physical science and nanotechnology that utilizes the quantum mechanics to explore coherent quantum effects in engineered nanostructures.
In recent years, quantum has taken on new meaning due to the increasing research toward the realization of quantum computers. Today, quantum mechanical phenomena — such as quantum coherence, superposition, and entanglement — are engineered at nanoscales.
Applications in this area include quantum computing, quantum simulator, quantum communication, and quantum sensing.
4. Fast Charging Smartphones And Electric Vehicles
Recently, substantive efforts have been focused on developing nanostructured electrode materials, which could improve state-of-the-art energy storage systems such as lithium-ion batteries.
Some researchers have come up with two-dimensional transition-metal dichalcogenides that can be used as supercapacitors. The material is small and allows faster electron transfer, enabling faster charging and discharging. It is made of nanometer-thick wires with 2D material shells coating.
There are plenty of examples like that. An Israel-based company named StoreDot builds nanomaterials, which (combined with proprietary organic compounds) have the potential to become the ultimate fast-charging standard in various industries, including smartphones, electric vehicles, and home appliances.
Their unique combination of energy density and fast charging has opened new doors for the next-generation flash battery. According to the company, their smartphone batteries and electric vehicle flash batteries (built with nonflammable, organic compounds) can be charged in 60 seconds and 5 minutes (providing a range of 300 miles), respectively.
3. Nanocoating And Nanostructured Surfaces
Coating with thickness controlled at atomic or nanoscale has become common these days. Recent applications include nanoparticulate oxide coatings that catalytically destroy chemical agents, and self-cleaning windows (coated in activated titanium dioxide) engineered to be antibacterial and water repellent.
The nanoscale intermediate layers provide superior bonding and graded matching of thermal and elastic properties, thus enhancing adhesion. These types of layers also improve wear and scratch-resistant hard coatings.
Moreover, improved porosity control at the nanoscale has made textiles a lot better: it has enabled waterproof, breathable, stain-resistant fabrics.
2. Space Exploration
Nanotechnology can make space flight more practical. Recent advances in nanomaterials have helped engineers make lightweight spacecraft and reduce the amount of fuel required to send rockets in space.
New material combine with nanorobots and nanosensors can further improve the performance of space probe and spacesuits. Scientists are employing carbon nanotube-based materials to decrease the weight of the spacecraft while retaining its structural strength.
These carbon nanotubes can enable lightweight solar cells that use the sunlight pressure (light reflecting on the solar cells) to propel the space probe. This saves more fuel during interplanetary missions. Moreover, onboard nanosensors can monitor the levels of trace chemicals in the space station to analyze the performance of life support systems.
1. Better Air And Water Quality
Nanotechnology is being used in two major ways to decrease air pollution.
- Catalysts – currently in use and regularly being improved upon.
- Nanostructured membranes – currently under development.
Catalysts made from nanoparticles are used to effectively convert vapors escaping from industrial plants and vehicles into harmless gasses.
Nanostructured membranes, on the other hand, can be used to separate CO2 from industrial plant exhaust streams. The goal is to develop a technology that can be implemented in all types of power plants without costly retrofitting.
Similarly, nanotechnology is also being used to tackle three major problems in water quality.
- Remove industrial water pollution from groundwater.
- Remove salt or metals from water.
- Improve standard filters to effectively eliminate virus cells.
In the first case, nanoparticles transform contaminating chemicals into a harmless solution. It’s an inexpensive process that can be used to reach contaminates dispersed in underground ponds.
For the second problem, deionization techniques based on nanofiber electrodes show promise for decreasing the energy requirements and cost of transforming salt water into drinking water. In the third case, filters only a few nanometers wide are used to remove virus cells from water.