Small Scale, Enormous Impacts: The World of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is all around us and it has so much potential! This is a general overview of what it is and its applications so that you can better understand the world around you.

Jessie Fournier
Nov 6 · 7 min read

Have you ever sat back and thought about how your surroundings work at an atomic level? I think I only ever started to do this at a very basic level in science class when we first learned about the atom. I was in seventh grade and I was trying to picture the composition of my desk. All I came up with was an image of microscopic particles jam-packed together because it was solid.

Over the next few years, I began to become more curious about the chemical makeup of the things around me and how they came to be, but I never really sat back and pondered it fully. It wasn’t until recently that I really learned that at the nanoscale the physical and chemical properties of matter change. This blew my mind! 🤯I had always thought that if you took a tiny piece off of something, like your pencil lead, it would have the exact same properties. It is merely the same thing, just smaller right? Wrong.

Take graphite, for example. This is fairly abundant and most of us use it every single day. If you are like me, you look past it. It is good for writing, it is silver, shiny and leaves residue. Not so interesting. But at the atomic level, the nano level, graphite becomes graphene. Which, contrary to how we see graphite, is absolutely extraordinary! Graphene is one of the strongest materials on Earth while still being flexible, impermeable and being one of the best thermal as well as electrical conductors all while being the thinnest material ever! It is only one atom thick!!! (To put it into perspective, for every millimeter of graphite there are 3 million layers of graphene.)

What’s even more amazing is that graphene is only one of millions of possibilities! Scientists and engineers have been designing and engineering materials at the nanoscale by rearranging atoms in a certain order for advantageous properties. This is called nanotechnology. To put how small the scale they are working at into perspective a little bit, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is 100 000x smaller than a human hair! A nanocube is the same ratio to an eye as an eye is to the entire Earth!

A scale to show just how small nanometers are.

By working at this ultra-small scale, there are so many possibilities that have the potential to revolutionize many different fields ranging from health care to renewable energy to manufacturing!

The 4 Stages of Nanotechnology:

There are multiple different stages of the advancement of nanotechnology and it’s applications. We are currently in the second stage and are rapidly moving towards the third.

This is when we can make a nanomaterial creation by controlling their structure on a molecular level, but it isn’t actually able to do anything. They have useful material properties, but that’s as far as it goes.

Like the first stage, we create these by manipulating the structure of things at the atomic level, but in this stage, they are actually able to make changes to other things. This is a huge leap because we are now able to use this for many different industries such as medicine. We have discovered that nanorobots could be used to target specific tumors in our body along with so many illnesses. In this stage, we have also been able to apply nanotechnology to building devices as a result of self-assembly nanoelectronics.

A depiction of a nanorobot.

This is where reality starts to meet science fiction. Have you ever dreamed of using an iron man suit to fly around and be almost invincible? Well, I certainly have and it would be AWESOME! Soon this could be an actual possibility because, in this generation of nanotechnology, various nanomachines are able to work together to form mind-boggling things.

This stage is very similar to the third, but we will have complete control of the actual molecules that make up our nanomachines. It is the perfection of creating nanomachines by using specific atoms with specific structures and functions.

Applications:

There is so much potential when it comes to nanotech. There are so many incredible things that have been done with this type of technology and it has so much more potential!

  • Chemotherapy: Nanoparticles can carry therapeutic drugs directly to the diseased cells which would reduce the negative side effects that chemotherapy has on people. It would also be a lot more precise which would allow for someone to be cured faster.
  • Cancer radiation therapy: By using bismuth nanoparticles, you can concentrate radiation and increase it by 90% because it would only be the tumor being targeted.
A nanorobot killing off a cancer cell by using radiation.
  • Heart disease: With nanotechnology, cardiac stem cells can be delivered to damaged heart tissue which would then allow for the tissue to repair itself. Polymer nanoparticles can hone in on inflamed tissue, such as arterial plaque, which can dissolve and in turn releases drugs to combat the problem.
  • Improving dental implants: If you were to add nanotubes to the surface of the dental implant material and load them with anti-inflammatory drugs, they would be applied directly to the area around the implant.
  • Treating glaucoma: Drugs are being attached to nanodiamonds which are then embedded in contact lenses. The drug molecules are released when the nanodiamonds make contact with tears which would provide a more consistent dosing than eye drops.
  • Type 1 diabetes: Doctors could inject nanoparticles that contain insulin and an enzyme, that would dissolve in high levels of glucose, into a patient’s bloodstream. By doing so, type 1 diabetics would no longer have to take insulin shots as it would be delivered automatically by the nanoparticles.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Nanorobots can ‘swim’ through thick liquids, this is extremely valuable because nanorobots could deliver antigens for a particular disease to eradicate the problem.
  • With nanoparticles or nanorobots, drugs could be delivered across the brain barrier to tackle neurological disorders.
  • Nanometer transistors allow for computer chips to be a lot smaller and faster
  • Quantum dots are being used for super high definition displays as they produce much more vibrant colors while saving more energy.
A nano-transmitter.
  • Carbon nanotubes are being used in wires which reduce the transmission power losses
  • Nanotechnology is being incorporated into solar panels to convert energy more efficiently. Nanostructured solar cells could be cheaper to manufacture and easier to install.
  • Researchers are developing thin-film solar electric panels that can be fitted onto computer cases and flexible piezoelectric nanowires that can be woven into clothing. These would be able to generate usable energy on the go from light, friction or body heat.
A flexible solar cell.
  • Can be used for rapid, low-cost detection and treatment of water impurities, allowing for more accessible and affordable clean water.
  • A nano fabric “paper towel” woven from tiny wires of potassium manganese dioxide has been designed by researchers that have the ability to absorb 20x its weight in oil for cleanup.
  • Many airplane cabins and other air filters use nanotechnology-based filters; they have nanoscale pores that trap larger particles

Challenges:

Although we are rapidly making advancements in nanotechnology, there are many challenges that are holding us back from reaching its full potential. There are multiple ethical concerns that arise when talking about the future of nanotech. Some of these include the fact that since things at the nanoscale change properties, they could become toxic. There is also the debate of whether or not it should be used for medical purposes to physically enhance humans as this would tamper with nature and most likely create division between modified humans and unaltered people.

Despite challenges being present, there is a lot of headway being made in nanotechnology and I am so excited to see what can be done in the future!

Key Takeaways:

  • At the nanoscale, the chemical and physical properties of substances change.
  • Graphene is awesome!! It’s one of the strongest, thinnest conductors ever.
  • We are in the second stage of nanotechnology but are rapidly approaching the third. (Enter Iron Man suits, yay!!!)
  • There are currently a lot of different applications for nanotech in all sorts of industries and there will be far more in the not too distant future!

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Jessie Fournier

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The Startup

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