Back in April, the folks at the PBS station THIRTEEN asked me to answer 13 questions on nanotechnology and the environment for their website feature Green Thirteen. The questions ended up covering most of nanotechnology – what it is, what it’s good for, what the downsides might be, and how we might overcome potential problems to use it effectively. With this in mind, I thought it worth posting the Q&A here as a brief nanotechnology primer…
1. What is nanotechnology?
The chemist and Nobel prize winner Richard Smalley described nanotechnology as “the art and science of making stuff that does stuff at the nanometer scale.”
Nanotechnology involves working with materials at an incredibly fine scale—around the size of the atoms and molecules that they are made of. But the aim is to achieve something new and useful by working at this scale.
Working at the nanometer scale—where one nanometer is a mere one billionth of a meter long—it becomes possible to tap into some unique properties of matter. Many of these properties only become apparent when small clumps of atoms and molecules are carefully constructed and used as the building blocks of larger structures. For instance, some materials can be used in new ways when they are engineered at the nanoscale, simply because they are more versatile than non-nanoscale materials. Other materials behave in strange new ways that enable innovative uses. Gold, for example, becomes a highly reactive, red-colored metal when formed into nanometer-size particles. And working at the nanoscale allows highly sophisticated new materials to be engineered that would be impossible to produce using conventional technologies—everything from super-strong materials to the next generation of computer chips to targeted drugs.
2. What are the benefits of nanotech?
The benefits of nanotechnology are incredibly broad, but generally involve making existing technologies work better, or enabling the development of new technologies.
Many people see nanotechnology as a tool kit that allows scientists and engineers to do new things, whether they are chemists, physicists, biologists, or working in a hundred and one other fields. In many cases, the things we use everyday don’t work as well as they could because we haven’t been able to control their structure precisely at the finest level. But nanotechnology is changing this. For instance, a growing number of consumer products are being improved through the use of simple nanotechnology-based applications: Sunscreens that go on clear, but protect against harmful UV radiation; clothing that repels stains; socks that prevent the buildup of odor-causing bacteria; tennis racquets that are stronger and lighter; MP3 players that are smaller while holding more songs; even foods that are supposedly better because they have been engineered at the nanometer scale.
But these consumer products are only the tip of the nanotechnology iceberg. Because the technology enables other technologies to work better, it has the potential to help address some of the biggest challenges facing us. These include combating climate change, generating renewable energy, controlling pollution, ensuring access to clean water, and developing highly effective medical treatments.
As nanotechnology is used to make better products and address serious challenges, it is expected to generate jobs and money. Some estimates put the possible market value of products that depend in some way on nanotechnology as being worth over $3 trillion dollars within the next five years. While the significance estimates like these are sometimes hard to evaluate, there is little doubt that the “nanotechnology tool kit” will play a major role in underpinning future technological and economic development.