What to Know About Nanotechnology to Join in the Discussions
Nano is Greek and means “dwarf”; as a prefix it means a billionth of a basic unit. A nanometer (nm) is a billionth of a meter.
There are differing definitions of nanotechnology. What they all have in common is the dimension to which it relates. Nanotechnology refers to materials which have at least one dimension that is smaller than 100 nanometers (nm). Nanotechnology includes the analysis, processing and production of these materials. Various technologies are used to do so.
Generally, nanotechnology has to do with the broad fields of physics and chemistry, but biology and medicine are also involved. Completely innovative products and procedures can be developed based on purposeful design in nano-dimensions.
Nanoparticles are particles with a diameter of under 100 nanometers (nm).
When a substance exists in nano-dimensions, for example as a nanoparticle, it has different physical properties than larger substance units. While in large sizes, i.e. at macroscopic level, it is volume properties that dominate, in the nano range it is surface properties.
The size of the surface in relation to the volume of a nanoparticle is illustrated by the example of a cube with an edge length of one millimeter. If you were to then cut cubes with edge lengths of one nanometer from it, the surfaces would multiply by the factor of a million compared to the individual piece – from initially six square millimeters, you would have six square meters. Accordingly, a powder like this reacts completely differently than the compact starting material.
At the nano level, changes occur to the conductivity, magnetic properties, breaking strength, melting and boiling point, color, etc. In many areas of application, these properties can lead to significant improvements in processes as well as to completely new products that had previously seemed impossible.
Nature provides the role model for nanotechnology: humans. The elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorous and some trace elements make up all body tissues – these could hardly be more different, from A for “arm” to Z for the “zygomatic bone” found in the face. It is only the differing “blueprints” at the molecular level that make this possible. Other examples include colorful butterfly wings, the antireflection coating of moth eyes, or gecko feet, which can even climb up vertical glass panes.
The leaves of the lotus plant as well as those of other plants are not wettable; water rolls off them. The water does not adhere to the leaf. The reason for this is the nanotechnological structure of the lotus leaf.
The surface of the lotus leaf is coarse at the nanometer scale. A water droplet – similar to a soccer ball rolling over a bed of nails – only has a few contact points with the surface of the leaf. The attraction of the water droplets to these contact points (adhesion) is in total lower than the attraction of the water molecules to each other (cohesion). For this reason, the droplet cannot adhere to the surface of the leaf and rolls off. Dirt particles also adhere better to water droplets than to the surface of the lotus leaf, so they are washed off. Thanks to nanotechnology, the surface of the lotus leaf is hydrophobic and self-cleaning.
Humans have been using nanotechnology without realizing it for a long time. For example, the red color in medieval church windows can be traced back to gold nanoparticles in the glass.
The winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Richard Feynman, is regarded as the father of nanotechnology. In 1959, he spoke of a vision for the future involving manipulating and controlling things at the smallest level. The term nanotechnology was first coined in 1974 by Norio Taniguchi from Japan. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig in 1981 meant that is was possible for humans to see structures in the nanometer range for the first time. This made it possible to work selectively in these dimensions and to establish structures.
Nanotechnology is already involved in many products and processes in countless areas of our daily lives. These very often include surfaces with a lotus effect that repel dirt or water. Surfaces that are particularly resistant to scratches can also be produced using nanotechnology. Examples include façades, bathtubs, paints and varnishes, pots and pans, clothes. Light but at the same time extremely stable nanotechnological materials are used in many cases. These range from tennis rackets to engine components to the blades on wind turbines. Nanotechnology. There are countless other examples in all industries of how new nanotechnological products and processes can completely replace old ones. Usually, however, it is not explicitly indicated that an innovation is based on nanotechnology.
The nanotechnological applications of the future also seem to be immeasurable. Here are some examples from various areas that are being developed:
- Clothes coated with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide may in the future help to clean the air.
- Nanotechnology will make it possible to paint cars with a “self-healing” finish that repairs the surface itself if it gets scratched or “switchable paint”, meaning that the color of the car changes at the push of a button.
- With the help of nanotechnology, textiles that monitor bodily functions will be developed as well as clothes that actively assist movement.
- Nanotechnology will make artificial photosynthesis possible – the generation of high-energy substances from lower-energy substances using sunlight.
- Intelligent medical systems carry the correct dose of medication to exactly the location in the body where it is needed
- Synthetic spider silk – harder than steel, more elastic than rubber, and produced using nanotechnology – will be used in medicine and automotive construction, for example.
- Thanks to OLEDs (Organic Light Emitting Diodes), wallpaper will be used to light rooms instead of lamps.
- Nanotechnology will make concrete light-transmissive.
As a key technology, nanotechnology has a growing influence on research, business and society. It is used in virtually all industry branches, especially in those that rely particularly on innovations. The growth potential predicted for nanotechnology is therefore enormous.
Early on, Nanostart recognized the enormous innovation potential and the significance of nanotechnology for social and economic progress. It promises particular potential for value growth for the companies in which Nanostart has a holding, up to possible blockbuster technologies that are generated by companies affiliated with Nanostart.
Since nanotechnology can have a considerable effect on innovative power, and therefore on the performance of a country’s economy, it is subsidized by many governments. For this reason, the German government has launched a nanotechnology action plan, which sets aside EUR 400 million per year. In the USA, government funds of USD 2.1 billion are budgeted for research and development in nanotechnology for 2012. In Russia and Singapore, Nanostart is a government office partner in state subsidy programs.
The nanotechnology risk discussion is particularly about the possible damaging effect of free nanoparticles on the human body. In particular, fears can be attributed to the small dimensions of nanoparticles, which could make it easier to overcome certain biological barriers.
Scientists see the largest risks in inhaling nanoparticles. According to the current state of knowledge, the possibility of nanoparticles penetrating human skin can be largely ruled out. It is still not known whether nanoparticles entering via the stomach-intestinal tract pose a risk. It must be assumed that every nanoparticle behaves differently, depending on its shape and material. Thus, the toxicity of each particle should also be checked. There are also no long-term studies yet. Studies show that certain free nanoparticles cause undesired bodily reactions in certain, usually high, concentrations.
To date, nanoproducts are mostly made up of structures in which nanoparticles are securely embedded in a matrix or a liquid suspension. Nanoparticles also have a tendency to cluster together in larger groups, which are generally larger than 100 nm. Manufacturers are obligated to ensure the safety of their products.