The term nanotechnology literally means controlling matter on a miniscule scale, at the atomic and molecular level. This all sounds very futuristic but, in actual fact, we make use of this technology in surprising everyday products.
Nanotechnology is literally like taking Alice’s looking glass and looking at the world on such a minute scale that we can not only see the atoms that makeup everything around us (including ourselves), but we can also use that knowledge to manipulate and move said atoms around in order to create something new.
The scale we’re referring to here is 1,000 times smaller than the microscopic level and a billion times smaller than the typical world of meters we’re used to measuring things in. “Nano” literally means one-billionth.
You might be surprised to find that this technology is already being used in many products that you use on a daily basis, from sunscreen to clothing, to adhesives and of course computers. During the past 30 years increased interest and funding in nanotechnology has led to rapid developments in many areas of science and engineering, including chemistry, energy, medicine, biotechnology, agriculture, electronic devices, and most notably everyday consumer products.
The average person already encounters nanotechnology in a range of consumer products – nanoparticles of silver are used to deliver antimicrobial properties in hand washes, bandages, and socks, and zinc or titanium nanoparticles are the active UV-protective elements in modern sunscreens. The contents of your medicine cabinet may contain micellar or liposomal products that use nanospheres to trap dirt or deliver medicines or skin care.
From the clothes and sunglasses you wear to computer hard drives and even cleaning products, nanotechnology – often inspired by the natural world – plays a big part in the manufacturing of many familiar products.
“Nature is all about nanoscale structures. It starts with the cell,” explains Julian Vincent, a former biologist and now professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Bath. “Biology plays around with the molecular scale all the time, it’s the level at which all biological reactions occur,” he adds.
Silk is a prime example of naturally occurring nanotechnology. “Silk is strong because of the way its molecules are aligned into a set of cross-links,” says Vincent. Kevlar, used in everything from flak-jackets to frying pans, was constructed by engineering its constituent molecules in a similar fashion.
Mimicking nature’s nanotech is becoming big business. Teams of researchers have turned to geckos and mussels in order to develop adhesives that bind to dry and wet surfaces alike. They’ve drawn inspiration from nanofibres in the geckos’ foot hairs, which allow the lizards to cling upside down on inclined surfaces, and the nanoscale structures used by mussels to “glue” themselves to rocks despite being underwater.
Plants too are big exploiters of natural nanotech. Nanostructures on the surface of lotus leaves repel water which carries away dirt as it rolls off the leaf, allowing the lotus to remain spotless despite growing in muddy water. This “lotus effect” is the basis behind self-cleaning windows. But rather than shedding water, beetles in the Namib desert are using a series of alternating waxy and non-waxy nanostructures to capture precious moisture from the early morning fog. Applying the idea to buildings could allow them to trap moisture for use inside.
Whether in your office or at home, it is impossible not to encounter technology based on the manipulation of the very small. Many technologies in the modern world rely on nanostructures, often inspired by evolution in the natural world. But there is much left untapped potential to explore. “I’d like to see a world where we can truly utilise the tried and tested methods nature has employed,” Vincent says.