Understanding Nanotechnology and How it Will Disrupt Our Future

An introduction to the nanoscale world and its transformative technologies.

Nanotechnology is exactly what the word sounds like, technology at a scale around 10–100 nanometers large. The technology is engineered by designing nanomachines using atoms and small molecules.

The idea of manipulating atoms and engineering at the nanoscale has been around since the 1950’s when Richard Feynman gave his first talk on nanotechnology at Caltech called There’s plenty of room at the bottom. He outlines a whole new world waiting to be discovered to fuel an era of technology where machines could be 7 atoms large! To understand nanotechnology we have dive deeper into the subatomic world or as Ant-man would say…

“I’m gonna have to shrink between the molecules to get in there.” ~ Ant-man
Ready, set, go!

The 4 Stages of Nanotech the Revolution:

It’s 2019 and the news is filled with loads information on the newest cryptocurrency or AI startup but it’s rare to hear about the newest advancements in nanotech. This is because we are still very early stage in developing the technology and we have so many benchmarks to meet still (Feynman would have been disappointed with our lack of growth in the nanotech space).

I googled “recent advancements in nanotechnology” and the first article dated back to 2016 which already says a lot in terms of how much research is being done in this field compared to areas like AI. Not to say there haven’t been major breakthroughs happening by research labs, it just sucks that we are still in the early-stages of nanotech.

The Nanotech Pipeline for the Future:

  • Passive Nanostructures: (this is where our research currently lies) the capability to manipulate molecular structures and create materials with advanced properties. Something like creating water-resistant/self-cleaning fabrics using nanostructures on the surface of various textiles. (Link to company doing this : Nanex)
  • Active Nanostructures: (this is where our research is currently heading towards) having nanoparticles that are mobile and participate towards a function in a materials/objects. Think of this stage as nanoscale devices that are integrated in everyday objects to perform an active role towards a common function. A good example is nanoscale devices in our smartphones that make it more dynamic with better computing performance.
  • Nanomachines and Nanosystems: this is the stage with self-assembling nanofactories creating complex molecular structures for specific use cases. The nanoparticles work together as machines and nanorobots to tackle huge problems in healthcare, energy, fuels, etc. We are still a long way off from reaching this stage, some people predict up to 50 years away.
  • Perfect Nanosystems: this is the last stage we want to reach with all the best nanotech applications becoming possible. This means we’ll have complete control over nanomachines and become precise in manufacturing complex systems to the last atom. This amount of control over nanoparticles will unleash a new wave of technology with massive amounts of implications!

3 Key Ideas to Help Understand Nanotechnology:

So now that we explored the different areas of nanotechnology, how does this tech even work???

1. Understanding the Idea of Nanoscale

  • I am a 5'1 girl which is around 154 cm, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter so that makes me 1 540 000 000 nanometers tall.
  • For better reference, a strand of hair is around 100 000 nanometers wide but the range of objects nanotechnology works on is 1–100 nanometers and consequently a protein for example is 10 nanometers.
  • All matter is made of atoms so understanding how processes work on a nanoscale will help us understand how the world works.
  • Atomic sized objects behave very differently at this level, for example carbon which is soft on a larger scale, will become extremely strong as carbon nanotubes as their physical properties changes.
  • Different laws govern the nano world, these laws follow quantum mechanics. Gravity becomes insignificant while electromagnetic forces help dictate the shapes and functions of molecules.
  • For example, an electron behaves very differently from our everyday objects because it’s only 1 nanometer large and quantum mechanics outline its weird behaviour. When we study an atom, the electrons it has are not defined by a space in time but by a cloud of probabilities of all the possible places an electron can be in. Sounds weird huh, well these strange properties allow nanoscale objects to have special capabilities that we can leverage and use for multiple applications. I’ll discuss this further below.

2. How to Operate on the Nanoscale

  • Since you can’t use your fingers to pick up atoms (…duh) we use electron microscopes to see and manipulate them.
  • We use electrons to “see” nanoscale objects because they have a wavelength of 1 nanometer whereas photons have 400–700 nanometers long.
  • This means we can observe objects smaller than light by using a stream of electrons like a beam of light
  • Electrons travel through coil-shaped electromagnets to form an electron micrograph (images of a nanoparticle).
  • There are different types of electron microscopes like, transmission electron microscopes (TEMs), scanning electron microscopes (SEMs), and scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs).

3. Different Types of Nanosystems

Nanomaterials:

  • Carbon nanotubes are an example of a nanomaterial with extraordinary characteristics.
  • These nanotubes are around 10 atoms wide and incredibly strong, around 117 times more stronger than steel.
  • These nanotubes are long cylinders of carbon atoms which can be grown up to any defined length, this material could be extremely useful in the future and potentially replace current metals.

Nanochips:

  • Microchips are nanotechnologies that we use in all our devices to run computations on.
  • They have allowed for more transistors to become smaller and smaller to fit more on computer chips and overall make the hardware small enough for our tiny devices.
  • TV’s, cellphones, laptops, smart-watches, etc. all use nanoscale chips to run computations on.

Nanomachines:

  • This is the idea of building nanoscale machines that are just made of a couple molecules and have robotic properties.
  • Nanorobots will be machines with moving parts as small as a couple atoms, these nanobots could have huge applications!
  • We could use various types of nanomachines to solve problems in medicine by injecting them in our bodies, perform molecular level repairs on systems and help filter dangerous chemicals from the environment.
  • Bacterias and other creatures on the planet have natural nanomachines with strict functions, we can use biomimicry to create our own nanomachines.

Nanotech will impact almost every industry, here are 3 major applications:

Solar Energy:

Quantum dots are being modified using nanotechnology to optimize the amount of energy generated from sunlight. A potential application will be modifying the colour omitted by quantum dots and making them transparent. This will allow us to create any glass materials infused with quantum dots to generate electricity from every window on every building.

The cost of creating solar cells will also decrease by using inexpensive nanoparticles to generate fuel. Current research is using water and metal oxides to store light energy as hydrogen which has a net carbon footprint. This can allow us to have solar energy even without the sun by using hydrogen storages for energy.

The efficiency of solar cells will also increase using nanotechnology. Using think sheets of graphene, researchers predict the solar cell will be 1000 times more efficient than current solar technology.

Clean Water:

A huge problem is removing toxins from water which have contaminated bodies of water from industrials wastes. Nanotechnology can be applied by modifying nanoparticles to react with the toxins and undergo a chemical reaction which creates harmless products making water safe to drink.

Filtering out bacteria and viruses from water is not possible without the use of nanotechnology. A virus is around 200 nanometers large so creating a nanofilter will allow us to block diseases caused by viruses in the water.

Curing Cancer:

Nanoparticles can allow a new way of delivering drugs into our bodies. Particles engineered to carry specific drugs will only attach to the cancer cells and allow precise methods of eliminating them without harming healthy cells in our body.

Nanoparticles can also carry heat to wipe our growing tumours. Nanotubes with specific anti-bodies can attach onto tumours and using infrared light lasers produce enough heat to essentially burn the tumour away.

Nanotechnology can also help diagnose and detect cancer early on. Nanotubes in chips with certain receptors can be introduced into the blood stream and detect the amount of cancerous cells in a body.

Key Takeaways

  • Nanotechnology is the use of particles ranging from 1–100 nanometers that allow us to build precise systems on the atomic scale
  • We are on the cusp of cutting edge research in nanotechnology, in the next 10–50 years this field will have huge impact in various of industries
  • Clean water, solar energy, curing cancer and etc. are just a few ways this technology will have massive impact in our everyday lives and solve the world’s hardest problems.

Thank you for reading and I hope you are more motivated to learn about this emerging field of technology!

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