What Is Nanotechnology and How Can It Change Our Lives For the Better?

Nanotechnology is the study of extremely small particles, or nanoparticles, and how these can be manipulated and controlled in useful ways. Nanotechnology is currently being used in hundreds of common products, including batteries, sunscreens, antibacterial products, scratch-resistant coatings, electronics, plastics, and even food and cosmetics.

But this technology is so new, many of us know very little about it. There are also many concerns about its safety for human and ecological health. Let’s shed some light on this important topic and its potential impact on our lives.

WHAT ARE NANOPARTICLES?

Nanoparticles are any particles of matter small enough to be measured on the nanoscale. This is the same scale used to measure atoms and molecules. In fact, many biological and natural systems occur at the nanoscale. The protein hemoglobin that carries oxygen in our blood is only 5 nanometers, or 5 billionths of a meter, in diameter.

Other natural nanoparticles are being investigated for possible use in nanotechnology. For instance, scientists are currently researching the strength and flexibility of spider silk, which is reinforced by natural nanoscale crystals. And they have already copied the nanostructure of lotus leaves to create water repellent surfaces in fabrics and other materials.

WHY USE NANOPARTICLES?

What’s wrong with regular-sized particles, you may ask? The difference lies in what scientists call the “quantum effect.” Larger particles of matter, such as gases, liquids and solids, have very predictable qualities. Whereas, matter can have unexpected behaviors at the nanoscale. These quantum effects can include properties such as greater strength, lighter weight or increased chemical reactivity.

For example, gold nanoparticles react differently to light than their larger-sized counterparts. Gold can appear red or purple on the nanoscale. Also, it’s been found that gold nanoparticles selectively accumulate in tumors. It’s not known why they do this, but scientists have been able to use gold nanoparticles to create more precise imaging and laser destruction techniques that can target tumor cells and avoid harming healthy cells.

Another important quality of nanoparticles is their significantly larger surface area compared to regular particles. The surface area of a particle is what allows for reactions with surrounding materials. A large particle of matter will have a limited amount of surface area. Whereas, there can be trillions or more nanoparticles in the same amount of space as a larger-sized particle. That means they can have trillions of times more surface area for reactions.

This is important for many different technologies. Scientists are researching nanoengineered batteries and fuel cells, where enhanced chemical reactivity could potentially produce cleaner, safer and cheaper ways to produce and store energy. Nanoparticles’ larger surface area also holds great potential for products such as water filtration systems, pharmaceuticals and clothing insulation.

HOW IS NANOTECHNOLOGY USED?

The use of nanotechnology has exploded over the past few decades. More and more manufacturers are including nanomaterials in a vast array of products. In fact, over 1,600 products are known to contain nanoparticles today. And research is ongoing, so you can expect to see a lot more in the near future.

These are some examples of current products and technologies that incorporate nanomaterials.

Biomedical

Nanotechnology is used in many areas of health care, including wound dressings with nanoscale silver as an anti-bacterial agent, and synthetic bone based on nanoparticles that can be inserted into areas where natural bone is missing or broken.

Electronics

The field of nanoelectronics has created many advances, including faster, smaller and more portable electronics with increasingly large amounts of data storage. Ultra-high definition screens use nanotechnology to produce more vibrant colors and improve energy efficiency. Nanoscience is also behind bendable and flexible electronics that are being introduced in medical and other applications.

Clothing

Nanoscale additives and surface treatments have created fabrics that resist wrinkling, staining and bacterial growth. Some fabrics can even provide lightweight ballistic energy deflection in personal body armor.

Energy

The Shenhua Group, one of the world’s largest coal companies, is using nanotechnology to liquify coal and turn it into gas. This could bring a major change to global energy production as countries with large natural reserves of coal, such as China and the U.S., now have the potential to manufacture gasoline.

Sunscreen

Certain sunscreens contain molecularly-engineered nanomaterials that absorb more light than normal brands and spread more evenly on your skin compared to the thick, sticky sunscreens you might be used to.

Cosmetics

Encapsulating or suspending ingredients in what’s called nanospheres or nanoemulsions can increase their penetration into your skin. Many different products use this in some form. For example, in 1998, L’Oreal introduced Plentitude Revitalift, an anti-wrinkle cream that used polymer nanocapsules to deliver active ingredients into deeper layers of skin.

Food

Nanoparticles made from clay are being used in lightweight bottles, cartons and packaging films to create an impermeable barrier to gasses such as oxygen and carbon dioxide. In addition, storage containers are being made with silver nanoparticles embedded in the plastic that will kill any bacteria present.

IS NANOTECHNOLOGY SAFE?

Nanotechnology has the potential to transform our lives for the better. Cheap, lightweight solar plastics are being developed that could make solar energy more widely available. Nanoparticles have been discovered that can easily clean up toxic chemical spills and air-borne pollutants. Lightweight nanomaterials may even hold the key to expanding space exploration.

Despite these potential gains, nanotechnology has a shadow side. It’s a very new science, and therefore, we have no way of knowing the long-term effects of releasing nanoparticles into our environment.

Studies funded by agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency are looking at potential safety concerns associated with nanoscale materials. But, it’s difficult to keep up with this rapidly expanding technology.

And perhaps more concerningly, the nanotechnology industry is largely unregulated. Companies aren’t required to label products containing nanoparticles, and there are no recognized standards on production and handling of nanomaterials. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety recommends that precautions be in place to avoid worker exposure to nanomaterials, but this is still primarily left in the hands of the employers.

In addition to human health concerns related to nanoparticles, we also do not know the potential affects on our planet and ecosystems. Studies have shown that some nanomaterials are toxic to species such as algae, invertebrates and fish. Disturbing evidence has also found that nanomaterials can be transferred across generations in both animals and plants.

One of the best ways to keep yourself and our planet safe is to stay informed about this new technology. Check if any of your commonly-used products contain known nanoparticles on The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies website. Speak to your local politicians about what they’re doing to ensure the products of nanotechnology are safe.

And don’t hesitate to share what you know with others. The more everyone knows about nanotechnology, the more likely it is that manufacturers will be held accountable to effective health and safety standards.

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84 comments

Marie W
Marie W2 months ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S5 months ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S5 months ago

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Jim V
Jim Ven5 months ago

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Jim V
Jim Ven5 months ago

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John W
John W6 months ago

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John B
John B7 months ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S7 months ago

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Jerome S
Jerome S7 months ago

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Jim V
Jim Ven7 months ago

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