Solving problems with nanotechnology
Sustainable energy. One of the most pressing of these problems, in the face of dwindling global oil and gas reserves, is the search to find better ways to supply the world population with energy – and with the least impact to our planet. It is becoming ever more apparent that we will only be able to do this by making better use of renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Nanotechnology is helping to bring about this transformational leap to a new era of sustainable energy. For example, it enables photovoltaic cells to be built in new ways and with better materials so that they may be produced more cheaply and generate electricity from the sun’s light more efficiently. Batteries play a key role in sustainable energy, and here too, nanotechnology is enabling breakthroughs in performance and energy density, particularly in lithium ion batteries for electric and hybrid cars as well as hydrogen storage units. Finally, nanotechnology can help us find important new ways to conserve energy, such as with optimized insulation materials.
Clean water and a clean environment. Alongside the search for sustainable energy, another great global challenge has been making more and more headlines as it becomes ever more acute in many parts of the world: the thirst for clean water. According to estimates from the United Nations, more than one billion people in developing and emerging economies do not currently have sufficient access to clean water. In industrialized countries, the quality of the water supply is being coming under increasing pressure from pharmaceutical and pesticide residues. Here again, nanotechnology is providing innovative new solutions with optimized filters which can remove chemicals and carcinogens from water with unprecedented efficiency. These nanofilters are already enabling a new generation of treatment plants which can purify large quantities of water in a short time. While water supply is one of our most pressing issues, nanotechnology also opens new and cost-effective opportunities to keep our air and soil clean as well. For example, catalytic converters optimized with the help of nanotechnology mean more efficient processes in the chemical industries which produce less waste, and nanostructured membranes can more efficiently filter pollutants from air.
Better and more cost-effective medical treatment. Around the world, the need for better, cheaper healthcare has become critical. In the industrialized economies, aging populations are putting enormous strains on national healthcare systems, and in emerging economies, population growth and a rising middle class are likewise creating an enormous new demand for medical treatment. Nanotechnology is playing an increasingly important role in overcoming this global challenge. Around the world, medical researchers are working on nanoparticles for drug delivery which can deliver powerful medications to exactly where they are needed in the body, such as the site of a tumor or infection. This means that these medications can act more effectively – and with fewer side effects in the rest of the body. Nanoparticles have also enabled a totally new approach to cancer treatment; by injecting a magnetic nanoparticle fluid directly into the tumor and applying an external electromagnetic field, the tumor may be destroyed by heating it from the inside out. The application of nanotechnology will also make itself felt in our pockets, not only figuratively but also literally: It is enabling bulky, expensive laboratory analysis and diagnostic technology to be miniaturized onto a silicon chip, putting within reach the dream of a complete hospital laboratory which fits in a pocket. Fully automated biochips will soon be able to quickly and cheaply detect pathogens or other biomolecules, such as those associated with cardiovascular disease or other widespread health issues. In the field of pharmaceutical research, too, the technology of drug discovery is benefitting enormously from these nanobiotechnology-based systems.
More speed, more comfort: Nanotechnology in sports and leisure. Nanotechnology, as a scientific field which brings together many other disciplines, can indeed contribute to great advances in meeting pressing global needs in energy, the environment and medicine. But it can also help us meet our aspirations. In athletic competition, for instance, nanomaterials can make the difference that wins the Olympic gold, reduce stress on the body, or simply offer athletes and leisure enthusiasts greater comfort and thus more enjoyment. To take an example from cycling, just a few grams of weight saved in a bicycle frame can bring a decisive edge, and thus ever more professional racers and serious amateur cyclists are using graphite frames instead of aluminum. In order to make these sophisticated graphite-polymer composite structures even tougher and more durable, leading-edge bike producers have introduced a new generation of graphite frames based on carbon nanotubes. These super-strong carbon nanotubes can also be found in high-performance tennis racquets which have been on the market in recent years. These racquets are uniquely effective at absorbing the shock when the ball strikes, thus helping to protect the body’s joints.
Another area where nanotechnology has brought significant advances in sports and leisure is in surface coatings, and here nano-optimized coatings have already transformed skiing, aquatic sports and golfing. Thanks to nanotechnology, new-generation ski waxes are more durable and resistant to abrasion, better repel water and enable downhill racers to ski faster. New nanotech-based boat care products use the same principle so that boats can slide through the water faster. Increasingly, high-end kayaks and other such watercraft are being designed and produced with these nanocoatings from the start. On the putting green, new-generation golf balls are being treated with a durable water-repellant nanocoating so that golfers can putt more precisely, even on wet courses. The same treatment also helps provide greater stability for long drives. With leading-edge nanotechnology, sportswear and other textiles can be imparted with valuable self-cleaning, dirt-repellant or antibacterial characteristics. Some of the latest products even soothe the skin or protect it from UV radiation.
Better security: Fighting crime with nanotechnology. According to expert estimates, some ten percent of all goods traded globally are counterfeit. Counterfeiting is not only a crime which costs law-abiding companies some EUR 200 billion each year; it also presents serious risks to consumers. Nanotechnology can help in the global war against the counterfeiters – for example, with fluorescent nanoparticles which are only visible under ultraviolent or infrared light. This new nanodot technology enables products to be authenticated and thus protected. Nano-watermarks and other nano-optical security features work similarly.
Another area where nanotechnology can make our lives safer is with nanosensors for use in airports or public buildings to automatically detect explosives or metal objects in baggage, or to detect the presence of explosives by sampling the air. The same applies to the optical sensors used in security camera to monitor airports, harbors, industrial facilities and public places, enabling these to “see” even under poor visibility conditions. In yet another area of public safety, nanotechnology will help police and rescue services to better protect us in the future by providing them with textiles which resist bullets and punctures, as well as materials which are better able to withstand explosions.