Every so often the winds of change affect the surrounding climate in a way that shapes the future. An example of this in the field of science and engineering is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has impacted the world of science and engineering to the extent that it has changed way researchers think, influencing future technologies and solutions. The impact is so strong that new topics of study are necessary to fully understand the possibilities and risks, e.g. nanomedicine and nanotoxicology.
Nanotechnology: Past Present and Future
“The European Commission estimates the sector to be worth in excess of USD 1 trillion, and is considered to be growing”
Nanotechnology is defined as an area of science and engineering where phenomena that take place at the nano-scale (10-9m) are utilised in the design, characterisation, production, and application of materials, structures, devices, and systems. Nanomaterials (materials with at least one dimension or aspect below 100nm) can be naturally occurring, such as, smoke, soot, dust, or sand. Others have been used long before it was known that they are nanomaterials, e.g. silica and carbon black.
However, now we have the ability to tailor nanomaterials to our specific needs, in the form of Engineered Nanomaterials (ENM).
The European Commission estimates the sector to be worth in excess of USD 1 trillion, and is considered to be growing. Between 2007 and 2011, the EU alone invested approximately EUR 896 million in nanotechnology related research. The worldwide investment in nanotechnology is estimated to be close to a quarter of a trillion USD, with both China and the USA investing upwards of USD 2 billion.
With so much focus and investment it is understandable that nanotechnology is continuing its growth. A larger number of manufactured nanomaterials are produced, with large numbers already included in products present on the European market, e.g. coatings (paints, lacquers), anti-bacterial clothing, cosmetics, and food products.
“Nanomaterials are widely used in consumer and industrial applications”
Applications and Possibilities
Nanomaterials offer lightweight and strong materials for applications in the automotive and construction industries. Nanotechnology in coatings make surface materials more durable, water- and stain-resistant, offering solutions in the textile industry for both high street fashion and for high-end sporting equipment. Many high-performance electronic devices rely on nanotechnology, e.g. Quantum Dot (QD) technology for LED screens and smartphones (QDs offer high resolution and accurate colour reproduction). Nanomaterials are providing novel solutions for medical applications and cosmetics, hence the health and beauty sector has seen the greatest rise in nanotechnology focused research.
Nanomaterials are widely used in consumer and industrial applications. In industrial products nanomaterials are regularly used to impart advantageous physico-chemical properties (durability, lustre, and water-resistance), e.g. addition of silica nanoparticles to paints for durability. Consumer products also use the same rationale for the addition of nanoparticles to products, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are a widely used nanoparticles in sunblock and creams, acting as UV filters.
In medicine, nanomaterials offer solutions in diagnostics, prophylactics, and treatment of diseases. Nanotechnology has great potential for applications in the field of cancer research and diagnostics. With the use of nanotechnology clinicians are able to monitor individual cells in the body. Biomarker detection using nanotechnology (nanoprobes) offers the possibility of early detection, and research in the field of proteomics and genomics facilitated by nanobiosensors has the potential for the prevention and control of diseases.
“Nanotechnology is not just the future, it’s already here”
Nanomaterials offer great potential and advancements for society. As larger numbers of nanotechnology products become available the exposure of nanomaterials increases, it is important to understand any potential risks that may be involved, and accordingly research to understand the biological nature of nanomaterials is high on the agenda for regulatory bodies across the world.
Nanotechnology is not just the future, it’s already here. It has improved our lives quietly but significantly, and with the continuous effort of researchers around the world nanotechnology persists to develop solutions in cosmetics, technology, medicines, and tools that benefit our daily life both at home and in the workplace.
Dr Muhammad Adeel Irfan
Research and innovation funding specialist at GAEU Horizon 2020 Centre of Excellence