Written by Catherine Bolgar*
Nanotechnology is one of the biggest trends for the future, bringing new materials and new understanding of the world at the smallest scale: that of molecules and atoms.
Ten or 15 years ago, nanotechnology was seen as hype,” or a passing trend, says Andrei Khlobystov, professor of nanomaterials and director of the Nottingham University’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Centre in the U.K. “But as time goes on, nanotechnology is becoming much more a part of our life. It doesn’t go away because there are still a lot of opportunities, still huge scope to contribute to economy and society.”
Carbon nanotubes, for example, conduct electricity better than most metals, offering a way to replace metals, such as gold, platinum and palladium, which are in increasingly short supply. Their electronic properties make them ideal for use in transistors, while their size—80,000 times smaller than a human hair—opens new opportunities for miniaturization. The sum of such properties holds promise for smaller, more powerful, faster computers.
Carbon nanotubes also are extremely strong—and already used for certain components in cars—but light in weight. And they’re made of cheap, plentiful carbon. You could almost make them from trees and grass, Prof. Khlobystov says.
“It’s never just one thing that nanomaterials offer; it’s always a whole set of different properties,” he says. “That’s what makes nanotechnology so exciting.”
Some of the biggest advances have been in medicine, with early diagnostics and other tools. Already, nanomedicine is being used for blood and breath analysis and to precisely measure the quantity of medicine in the blood in order to adjust the amount a patient needs to take.
Tumors might be detected more quickly, via blood tests. “It’s possible to use nanoparticles to make imaging technology much better, to image tumors,” says Dave H.A. Blank, scientific director of MESA+ Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “This is really growing fast.”
See Dave Blank’s fantastic TEDx Talk about nanotechnology:
A new approach includes a lab-on-a-chip that has tiny channels etched on it, so that 1/1000th of a drop of blood is enough to analyze.
“We can measure how the liver or heart responds to medicine,” he says. “The advantage is you can easily go through the body,” because of the small size.
In three or four years, a nanopill, containing a complete laboratory, could look for colon cancer. It would pump in material from the colon and could measure if there’s cancer, whether it’s at an early stage, and send information to a smart phone. The pill itself would be made of organic materials, and the electronic parts are silicon—which is just sand, Prof. Blank says, so there’s no damage to the body or the environment. “I expect that in five years there will be regulations that everyone take such a pill,” he adds.
An organ-on-a-chip is the next goal. “You take tissue from the lung, grow it and put it on the lab-on-a-chip or organ-on-a-chip,” Prof. Blank says. “You can look at oxygen behavior in the lung or blood in the liver or how the heart muscle responds to electric impulses. We can watch how cells communicate with each other.”
Nanotechnology also can make new materials. One of the most exciting is graphene, which is a two-dimensional substance made up of a single layer of carbon atoms. It’s flexible, durable and an excellent conductor of electricity.
Rubber bands coated with graphene could be used in medicine as cheap, flexible sensors. Graphene ribbons could act as semiconductors. Graphene and carbon nanotubes could lead to mobile phones so tiny and flexible they could be printed on clothing. Graphene oxide could reinforce concrete or be applied like paint to stop corrosion.
Why are we only now starting to discover so many new properties in something as common as carbon?
One reason is that matter at an atomic level has its own rules, which until recently were unknown to us. The discovery of atoms came from observations about them in large numbers, not as individuals. Advances in equipment—such as electron microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy or atomic force microscopy—allowed researchers to see actual atoms, which are smaller than the wavelength of light .
Now we find that certain things may not be as we thought,” Prof. Khlobystov says. We once thought that a piece of gold was made of gold atoms and that all those atoms were the same. “They are the same if you look on the macroscopic level,” he says. “But as you start zooming in, you see that not all the atoms are the same. And there are defects, edges and faults.”
Beyond how atoms look is how they act on an individual level. “When you make things smaller, new physics and new properties kick in,” Prof. Khlobystov says.
The next challenge is to control chemical reactions between individual atoms, using carbon nanotubes as tiny test tubes. “They can produce new chemical products in a sustainable way and can produce entirely new materials,” he says.
*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.