Small Things and Big Implications
Nanotechnology is a relatively new field that is – simply put – about the understanding and manipulation of structures which are around 1-100 nanometre(nm) in size. And one nanometre is really tiny. To be precise, it’s 0.000000001 metres, or 10⁻⁹ metres.
It might not sound very exciting to work with stuff that’s so tiny that you can’t even see it. But if you’re able to manipulate single atoms and control the exact size of particles, there’s almost an infinite number of neat things to build. And as new as it is, nanotechnology has been used and misused as a buzzword in many different settings.
The iPod nano from Apple is an example of a product that is small, but not exactly on the nanoscale. The circuitry and transistors inside the product is, however, on the nanoscale, but this is not unique for the iPod. It seems likely that “nano” is just used as a model name because it sounds cool, and because nano apparantly just means that it’s really, really tiny, and will totally fit in your pocket. Of course, people are also trying to profit from the hype in slightly more harmful ways. Take this company, which is selling bottles of gold nanoparticles suspended in water that will supposedly revitalise your nervous system. Somehow.
Not surprisingly, people are also concerned about the dangers of nanotechnology, much like people are concerned about getting cancer from cell phones and hair dryers. This is not to say that nanotechnology is completely safe and unable to harm anything. There have been concerns around sprays or detergents – those containing nanoparticles – where the particles might get stuck inside lungs if they’re inhaled. For the most part, products that contain nanotechnology are no more unsafe than products based on other technological advances. That still does not stop people from making up reasons – however far-fetched – for us to not do any further research on the subject.
One of the more improbable ideas start with the possibility of building tiny robots that could do various tasks for us. Nanotechnology might make it possible in the future to build small robots that could, for example, eat oil spill. If these robots then become self-replicating, the argument goes, they would be able to devour the Earth. This so-called gray goo scenario became the big scare over twenty years ago, around the time that nanotechnology really started gaining some traction.
The fear and concern around nanotech isn’t anything like a mass hysteria, but seems to be more than warranted for new technology. Since it’s such a new field of study, much of it might be owed to public misconceptions.
In fact, people have used nanotechnology far longer than most would think, even if we haven’t called it that. For several hundred years, glass workers have created stained glass mixed with small amounts of gold, making a distinctly red glass. The gold forms tiny spheres that reflect the light, something that happens only when the spheres are nanosized. If the size of the spheres can be controlled, it is even possible to make glass with different colours. And when gold particles cure cancer, we’ll be all set.
Nature itself is also really good at making amazing structures on the nanoscale. Our cells are, for example, at the micrometre scale, but the DNA molecules inside them are only about 2.5 nanometres wide, while they are almost a metre long. That’s as if you had a 2.5 cm wide string which was a 10 million metres long. A string like that would reach a quarter of the way around the equator, but would only be as thick as a finger.
To sum things up, nanotechnology isn’t that big and scary. It’s a science with many properties from other fields, and is very specialised size-wise. And like the word “quantum”, nano is being misused in many different ways by people who want to make a profit. Even so, nanotechnology a very important new field of study. Some might even say that nanotech represents the future for improvements of computers and solar panels. Maybe I’ll even write about that one day.