In today’s technological world, nothing is any bigger than small, and the biggest smallest technological advances can be found in the flourishing field of nanoscience.
How small is small?
Nanoscientists work with materials less than 100 nanometers in size. OK, so how small is that? Nano means one-billionth, so 1 nanometer is equal to .000 000 001 meters. Did that help you grasp the size of these minute particles? No? Well, because we live in America, let’s look at a nanometer in inches.
There are more than 25 million nanometers in just one inch! That definitely gives us a somewhat better idea of just how small the nanoworld is, but it is still hard to truly grasp the microscopic scale of the particles this branch of science works with on a daily basis.
Maybe it would help if we placed three standard atoms side by side—there you have it, one nanometer.
But don’t let the size of this small world fool you—the secrets being discovered in the nanorealm are affecting, and will affect, life in a big way on our entire planet.
Where does cancer start? It starts on the molecular level inside a single cell, so what better place to wage war against it than on its own playing field.
According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. In the next decade, the number of new cancer cases diagnosed each year will increase to 21 million, and cancer deaths will increase to 13 million per year.
Nanotechnology offers some of the most promising new therapies for battling cancer. The main problem with cancer-fighting therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation, is that these therapies are unable to discern between cancerous cells and good cells in the body. Therefore, both bad and good are killed. Nano-therapies have been created to target only cancerous cells, thereby leaving surrounding tissue intact and healthy.
Such therapies are called targeted therapies because they are intended to kill only cancerous cells. Scientists have created molecular nano-substances that seek out the enzymes or proteins specific to cancer cells. These substances can be chemically combined with medicines in order to deliver cancer-killing drugs directly to individual cancer cells.
One promising new cancer therapy involves the use of gold nanoparticles that are delivered to tumors using targeted therapy and then heated up by the use of laser beams. The gold particles produce enough heat to kill any cancerous cell they are attached to while leaving surrounding healthy cells relatively unharmed.
Scientists at Cornell University created nano-sized fluorescent silica particles that seek out cancerous cells and attach to them. These nanoparticles were originally used to “light up” tumors for surgical removal, until it was discovered that they had the ability to kill a tumor through a process called ferroptosis. The particles were found to promote the introduction of iron into the cell, which then ruptured the cell membrane and killed the cancerous cell.
These new nano cancer therapies are still in the early stages of development, but so far, all have had promising results.
The Greeks and the Romans knew that silver had special properties when it came to preventing spoilage of food or wine. In fact, all across the globe, mankind has been aware of the antibacterial properties of silver for thousands of years—even though early physicians had no idea that bacteria even existed.
Now, nanoscience has made silver even more valuable as a disinfectant and antimicrobial. Layers of silver nanoparticles coat medical devices, such as catheters, and slowly release silver ions to kill any bacteria that might try to invade the body.
Large silver ions can be easily captured by many different substances, but silver nanoparticles evade these chemical traps and deliver silver ions directly where they are needed.
Approximately 30 million Americans have diabetes. The disease requires constant monitoring of blood glucose levels, and this is done almost exclusively by providing a small amount of blood via a finger prick. This type of monitoring is sometimes painful and can be a hassle.
Scientists have produced implantable, real-time blood glucose monitors using nano-technology. The monitors can provide diabetics with accurate measurements that are sent to their smartphone or a provided receiving device. Such systems provide alarms that alert diabetics to both high and low blood sugar levels. These devices are usually implanted by the physician in his or her office and are placed just under the skin.
And researchers are in the process of developing even smaller sensors that can be injected directly into the blood stream. The minute sensor that is built using nanotechnology will then come to rest in a capillary where it will send back real-time information on glucose levels to an external monitor.
Information Retrieval & Entertainment
Companies such as Google, Sony and Innovega are putting the finishing touches on Smart Contact Lenses. These lenses, which look like ordinary, everyday contact lenses, are touted as offering wearers “virtually unlimited” access to many forms of data retrieval. The lenses were created using nanotechnology and consist of a pair of hi-tech contact lenses and, with some applications, an accompanying pair of stylish glasses. Anyone wearing the lenses can see the data projected onto their visual field with perfect clarity.
As a group, the lenses enable the wearer to take photos or video; store data on the lens itself; access the internet; monitor things such as heart rate, blood glucose level, blood alcohol level, allergens in the air and air quality content; scan and read barcodes; make payments using a “retinal” scan of the lens; play video games; watch full-length, hi-resolution movies; and the list goes on.
The emacula enhanced retinal technology system by Innovega allows the wearer to see clearly the real world around them while experiencing augmented and virtual reality at the same time. For example, a person could walk the streets of Ocala while simultaneously reading projected historical facts concerning the buildings around them in real time, seeing the dimensions of the structure they are observing or determining their exact distance from the structure. It would be similar to having a visual Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant available in front of your eyes at all times.
Some of the lenses are available today, and others will be out within two to three years.
One of the most environmentally exciting innovations in nanoscience is in the production of solar power.
One of the drawbacks to the widespread acceptance and use of solar systems is the cost of installation. An average system for a residence in Florida costs between $15,000 and $20,000 with as much as one-third of that cost being subsidized through the federal solar tax credit. Nano-advancements in the materials used to produce solar panels may soon reduce those costs dramatically.
Researchers at Michigan Technological University have discovered a way to replace the expensive platinum (approximately $1,000 per ounce) used in some cells with much cheaper 3-D honeycomb-shaped graphene. The nano-sized graphene layers are easily produced, and the panels convert 7.8 percent of the sun’s light to energy, as compared to 8 percent using a platinum-based panel. Because solar panels comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the total cost of a residential system, this could provide homeowners quite substantial savings.
Thinner is better. When it comes to solar cells thinner is much better. Solar cells made from 2-D graphene layers that are only one nanometer thick can be up to 50 times thinner and more lightweight than silicon cells with the same power output. This means loads when it comes to solar-powered automobiles and planes, and it also means lower shipping costs per panel, which, in turn, lowers overall system cost. Lower system cost translates to more systems sold and an even further reduction in cost.
With a burgeoning world population, ample food production is now more important than ever. Much of the world (including Central and North Florida) have calcareous soils that are comprised of calcium carbonate (limey soil). A significant problem with these types of soils is the lack of micronutrients such as zinc and iron. (Zinc deficiency has long been a common problem in the citrus industry.)
Soil scientists have recently focused their attention on the delivery of such micronutrients to plants’ roots. In the past, these micronutrients would be added to the soil in a fertilizer mix containing relatively large particles of whatever element was needed. The physical makeup of calcareous soils is such that these large particles have a tendency not to readily break down. Nanoscience provided the answer to this problem.
Nanoscientists coated the fertilizer’s macronutrient particles with a layer of zinc oxide nanoparticles and found that plants received significantly more of the nutrient than when using traditional fertilizers. Not only is the zinc absorbed more readily by the plant on the molecular level, less zinc is needed in each fertilizing cycle and fewer cycles are needed to keep the amount of zinc in the soil adequate for optimal plant growth.
Nano-sized filters have taken fluid filtration to a completely new level. Nanofilters with pores less than 10 nanometers in diameter have replaced standard filters, allowing for the entrapment of molecule-sized particulates.
Nanofilters made from fine layers of aluminum oxide are used to soften or purify drinking water; to desalinate saltwater; and in the milk and juice industry, petrochemical industry and medicinal field.
Most often nanofiltration is used to soften hard water by filtering out calcium and magnesium ions without the use of a sodium or potassium additive.
Sources: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, understandingnano.com, journals.plos.org