So how will nano help us?
As with many new technologies there’s lots of hype about what nano might do, some of which may come off, some won’t. Also not everyone is keen on everything nano could do.
Some think that nanotechnologies will be used where less technological solutions would be better and some that its use will marginalise those countries who can’t afford it, while others are concerned as to where such advances may take us as human beings and as a society. Take a look at the Social and Ethical section for a little more detail
There are also some uncertainties about the safety of some nanomaterials, take a look at the safety section for a little more detail.
But at the moment nano is being used to change some every day things - for example reducing the size of particles in something like sunscreen to the nanoscale makes it clear, not white and sticky like it used to be. A nano-coating on clothes can stop them getting dirty or smelly, while another can improve the acceptance of medical implants like hip replacements in the body.
Take a look at the our Nano products page to find
This new ability to work with atoms and molecules means that nano processes or materials could enable some exciting new breakthroughs - though some people think a lot of these futuristic applications are more nano-hype than real possibilities.
But whatever happens in the deep future, there won’t be many areas of product manufacturing over the next few years which won’t be enhanced in some way by the various nanotechnologies, though for that to happen successfully the safety issues in many areas need to be satisfactorily resolved.
In the future, products made using nanotechnologies may enable us to heat our houses through solar panels that are printed like wallpaper, deliver medicines straight to the bit in the body which needs it or run our cars on hydrogen not petrol.
But we don’t yet know what will turn from potential to reality. As we have seen with new technologies before, what may look like a promising application now, might never turn into a sensible product, but something we haven’t even thought about might be 'The Next Big Thing' in 2020.
Have a look at our Nano Products section for current uses, but, some of the most talked about future areas include:
As society tries to find alternatives to fossil fuels, renewable energies are high on the priority list. Solar panels are likely to be very useful in supplying some of our energy needs in the future. Even here in the UK we get enough sunlight for a substantial part of our energy needs to be supplied by the sun.
Nanotechnology might even allow us to ‘spray’ solar panels onto our roofs, or, pretty near to happening at the moment, to make them from new materials that are lighter, more flexible and cheaper to make.
Fresh water is being talked about as ‘the oil of the 21st Century’, because of its scarcity in many countries, including the UK. Nano holds out great hopes in three very important areas of water treatment - simple filtration, recycling or desalination techniques; sensing and detecting contaminants at very low levels and preventing pollution in the first place.
Even speedier computers
Computers are already significantly faster and with greater storage capabilities and processing power than they had 10 years ago, but there are still improvements to be made.
The computer industry is reaching its limits of making things smaller and faster, but nanotechnology holds out promise to overcome these limits and allow computer technology to continue its path of smaller, faster and stronger.
There are many ways that nanotechnology may be be useful in medicine. One potential application is to use nanoparticles to ‘stick’ blood vessels together in surgery, instead of the surgeon having to stitch them. Another is to search out and kill cancerous tumours. This kind of technique would significantly reduce side effects because nanoparticles could be targeted directly at tumour cells – leaving the rest of your body alone.
One slightly less probably idea that has been around for a long time, but was seen as an impossible dream is a ‘space elevator’ – a real-life Jack’s beanstalk! It would be a kind of lift to take people and objects like satellites into space.
What makes it slightly less of a dream now is that carbon nanotubes, at least in theory, are strong enough to build this lift - but as is sometimes the case, what is possible in theory is actually very difficult to do in practice - so don’t hold your breath on this one! (By the way, that’s what’s flying up and down on our home page!)
The nanotechnology in the products available today and in the near future, like most of the applications above, have been called ‘incremental nanotechnology’. In other words, they are just lots of small improvements to fields like chemistry, physics and advanced materials.
The 'really big thing' -
The next, and really BIG THING, which has been talked about for almost 25 years, has been the promise of molecular nanotechnology, or ‘radical’ or ‘advanced’ nanotechnology, as a real paradigm shift in the way products are manufactured. With molecular nanotechnology, ordinary objects, like the computer you are using to read this website, would be assembled atom-by-atom by machines that operated on the molecular scale.
Some obstacles in how physics operates on the scale of atoms have made the practical development of this sort of thing difficult to realise. But it has long been argued that since this is the way nature produces its products, it’s conceivable that we could do something like this too.
Scientists are trying to duplicate nature’s methods, by building with biological molecules like DNA rather than with weird nanobots made out of inorganic materials.
Groundbreaking work is now being done in creating and programming a machine made out of DNA molecules so that it will move molecules around where we want them to go.
It’s an early step in this area and huge challenges remain, not least of which are the major social and ethical issues which will come out of this area of science. However a future in which manufacturing is more efficient and cheaper is a long way off, but somewhat more conceivable within the coming decades.
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