Introduction

Nanotechnology, the use of tiny materials and structures to improve our equipment, machinery, components and substances may sound like science fiction, but it's very real and closer to our daily lives than you might think. In this blog, we break down the basics of nanotechnology and its transformative use in different industries, exploring how the tiniest of particles can pack the largest of punches.

What is nanotechnology? 

Nanotechnology deals with materials and structures at the nanoscale, which are particles and devices with dimensions less than 100 nanometers. To put it into perspective, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometres thick, and a person standing at six feet tall is about 2 billion nanometres! At the nanoscale, the properties of materials can be drastically different, offering special functions and applications for technology.


 

Nanometers size comparison paper

What are nanomaterials?

Nanomaterials are usually between 1 and 100 nanometres and possess special properties which makes them useful in technology, including high surface area, biocompatibility, and optical and electrical properties. The four main types of nanomaterials are nanoparticles, nanofibers, nanotubes and nanolaminates.

techniques to engineer nanomaterials

The science behind it

Nanomaterials can be found in nature or engineered by human hands. Their size, shape and composition can be customised using techniques like TEM, DLS, EDS, FTIR, XRD, XPS and ICP-MS. These techniques can be used to alter the chemical bonds, crystal structure, electronic structure and composition of nanomaterials by measuring the mass of ions.

Some of the Nanomaterials can also be found in nature, with some examples including:

• Wax crystals: These crystals cover the leaves of lotus and nasturtium plants.
• Spider silk: Produced by spiders and spider-mites.
• Tarantulas: The blue colouring that can be seen on tarantulas is from natural nanomaterials.
• Gecko feet: Natural nanomaterials are found on the bottoms of gecko feet, called ‘spatulae.’

bottom of gecko foot

Nanomaterials in construction and infrastructure

More and more use cases are being found for nanomaterials in construction and infrastructure due to their unique and useful properties. However, their cost and lack of research and testing has prevented them from being used extensively. 

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are developing polymer nanotrusses, which are tiny structures made of polymer, which have special qualities such as shape memory and flaw-tolerance. 

Another example is the recent development of a new coating by researchers at the University College London, made from titanium dioxide nanoparticles that can mitigate the negative effects of moisture exposure, even after scratches or oil exposure. This coating can be useful for creating durable, self-cleaning surfaces that perform better against weather exposure. 

 

Mining

In the mining industry, nanotechnology has been used to improve the efficiency of mineral extraction processes. For example, nanoparticles can be used to enhance the performance of drilling fluids and well stimulation. Nanotechnology can also be used to develop new materials with improved strength and durability for mining equipment, which can prolong the useful life of machinery and boost efficiency. 

An example of a novel technique used in the mining industry is nanofiltration, a method which extracts and purifies lithium from petroleum. Nanofiltration uses a special type of filter called a membrane to separate different substances that are dissolved in water. The membrane has tiny holes that only very small particles can pass through, allowing the membrane to separate different sized substances.
 

Oil and gas

In the oil and gas industry, nanotechnology is being researched for use in various applications such as drilling fluids, oil recovery, cementing and well stimulation. Nanoparticles can be used to improve the properties of drilling fluids, enhancing viscosity (fluid thickness), thermal stability (heat resistance) and lubricity. Nanotechnology can also be used to enhance oil recovery by reducing interfacial tension between oil and water, which makes it easier to separate two liquids. 

lab worker looking into microscope

Renewables

In the renewable energy sector, multiple use cases have been found for nanotechnology, and are continuing to be discovered. For example, new materials have been developed for solar cells called perovskites, which can be synthesized in the nanoscale and produced at a lower cost than silicon or gallium arsenide (traditionally used in solar panels). As well as this, quantum dots (which are tiny semiconductor particles) can capture various light wavelengths and produce multiple electrons per photon. By integrating them into solar cells, power output can be boosted by as much as 40%.

 

Nanoparticles can also be used to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles, enhancing energy density, power density and cycle life. Adding nanoparticles to the electrodes of a battery can increase the surface area of the electrodes, improving energy and power density. Nanoparticles can also help prevent short circuiting, improving battery life cycle. 
Nanoparticles can also make hydrogen production more efficient. Through a process called electrolysis, electricity is used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Nanoparticles can make this process more efficient by making the catalysts in the process more efficient. 

 

IT

In the IT industry, nanotechnology has been used to develop new materials for computer chips that can improve their performance. Nanoparticles can also be used to develop new types of memory devices that are faster and more energy-efficient than conventional memory devices. 
Some more innovations include:

 

  • Transistors decreasing in size through nanotechnology.
  • Magnetic random-access memory (MRAM), important components in computers, are built with nanometre-scale magnetic tunnel junctions. 
  • Some ultra-high-definition displays use quantum dots for boosted screen vibrancy and efficiency.

     

Life Sciences

Nanotechnology has diverse applications in biological sciences - spanning health, plant science, agriculture, food packaging, biosensing and biomolecular engineering.

 

For example, nanotech has been used to develop new drug delivery systems that can target specific cells or tissues in the body, and nanoparticles can be used to develop new diagnostic tools that are more sensitive and accurate than conventional diagnostic tools. Nanoparticles attached to cancer-specific antibodies results in a highly sensitive and precise diagnostic tool that can detect cancer cells at an early stage. 

 

Other potential biological applications for nanotechnology include creating new materials for tissue engineering, developing more effective food packaging and enhancing the efficiency of agricultural practices.

 
hexagon nano pattern

The potential risks associated with nanomaterials

Nanomaterials can have some ill effects when it comes to human health and the environment. The tiny particles can be toxic in air, water, and soil and prolonged exposure can lead to serious health problems like respiratory, cardiovascular and reproductive issues.

Nanoparticles can also impact ecosystems and wildlife as they are often difficult to destroy due to their unique properties, safety concerns arise during production, handling and disposal. Ultimately, more research to fully understand the risks and safety measures is needed.

To keep things under control, precautionary steps are essential - including the development of risk assessments and guidelines for safe handling and disposal. And as nanomaterials become more ubiquitous moving forward, awareness needs to be raised among workers, consumers and the public about their potential hazards. 

scientists with PPE on studying microscope

 Where to next?

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