By Fabiana Romain
Edited by Danike Suh & Ella Fasciano
Nanotechnology is one of the leading modern technologies that is key for a better and more sustainable future. So far, researchers have simply been scratching the surface of its full potential. The European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials (EUON) stated that “nanotechnology is predicted to have four distinct generations of advancement," meaning that there’s a lot to be developed in this field. Just imagine what kind of applications this technology will have in the future if, at this moment, it can already fight cancer cells and remove microplastics from water bodies.
But what is nanotechnology anyway? Primarily, nanoscience is a field of science in which matter below the micron - that is, at a molecular and atomic level - is studied at the nanoscale. With nanoscience comes nanotechnology - which makes possible the creation of intricate materials and devices, typically used for industrial purposes, by manipulating molecules and atoms. What's fascinating about this is that there is nanoscale matter whose biological, physical or chemical properties differs from that of bulk material and single atoms or molecules. Some of these variations make the materials stronger, which is the case of graphene—a substance composed of pure carbon. Graphene has atoms arranged in a regular hexagonal pattern, which makes it better for conducting electricity and heat while also having different magnetic properties and color changing properties.
In order for scientists to work with materials at the nano-scale, they need special microscopes. One of the new inventions of this era regarding such devices is the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), whose primary function is to measure items, though it can also move tiny pieces such as carbon nanotubes.
The Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) is a type of advanced microscope.
As mentioned above, nanotechnology has the potential to transform the world as we know it. And it has already begun to do just that. For instance, one of the biggest accomplishments scientists have achieved with this technology thus far is the creation of nanoparticles which can detect and destroy cancer cells, thus fighting cancer. The way it functions is as one may think: there are nanoparticles specifically designed to adhere to cancer cells in order to make the tumors visible on scans earlier in the development of the disease than usual when using other methods. On the other hand, regarding the second part of the fight, cancer cells absorb the nanoparticles and the particles use infrared light to heat themselves and kill the cells. Of course, this isn't the only method, and much of this technology still in the development phase, but scientists hope to start using it as soon as possible to save countless more lives.
Another fascinating application of nanoparticles is the removal of microplastics from water bodies using carbon nanosprings. When left in water with microplastics, the nanosprings degrade the microplastics by releasing reactive oxygen species which transform the tiny plastic pieces in even tinier, non-harmful chemical components. Other areas where nanotechnology is and will be revolutionary is in the electronics industry (graphene, the nanomaterial mentioned earlier, is a candidate to make touchscreens flexible and the replacement of silicon with carbon nanotubes to create better microchips is close to becoming a reality), the food industry (nanobiosensors could be used to detect any kind of pathogens in the food), and the energy sector (nanotechnology can save energy and improve the production process of renewable energy).
However, as with everything in life, nanotechnology has its downsides. The controversy with nanotechnology arises mainly due to the fear of the unknown. This is to be expected - after all, it's human nature to fear what one does not know. Since many of the applications of nanotechnology are still in the development phase or still being studied, it's difficult for everyone to trust this new technology. Doubts and hesitations in regards to ethical, economic, and environmental issues are very common to hear concerning the topic of nanotechnology. How will nanoparticles affect bodily functions? What are the adverse side effects? Are all nanomaterials eco-friendly? Those are common questions that researchers in the nanotechnology industry face everyday.
The truth is that scientists will not to have an answer to these important questions for quite a while because this technology is still largely unknown to humans. However, fear should not hinder their progress. Scientists are doing all they can to make the exploration of nanomaterials and their potential as safe as possible. Nanotechnology can accomplish incredible things and it's time to set our doubts aside to take a leap of faith.