Nanotechnology is one of the most powerful science fiction buzzwords. Nanotech is used whenever an author or filmmaker needs to explain away a future technology that isn’t quantum in nature. With little more than a hand-waving explanation, visions of intelligent, swarming, microscopic robots arriving to heal our every ill (or devour the flesh from our bones) populate every corner of our futuristic stories.
However, these technologies are increasingly becoming a reality. Nanotechnology is being used by scientists from nearly every field to revolutionize their work. There are applications ranging from touchscreen manufacturing and heart attack prevention to entertainment and the environment. In the not-too-distant future, we will most likely be surrounded by a nearly invisible population of nanoparticles, each tailored to its intended use. They’ll live in every part of our environment, from the ocean to the atmosphere, and even inside our bodies.
The work has already begun, as scientists engineer ever-smaller machines and push them into our world’s nooks and crannies. It’s possible that you’ve already encountered nanotechnology and were unaware of it. If you haven’t heard, the swarm is on its way, and it will change nearly every aspect of our world.
Clothes of the Future
It’s difficult to imagine how we could make everyday clothing high-tech. There’s almost nothing more mundane than a t-shirt or a pair of socks, but nanotechnology has the potential to change all of that. Existing fabric materials can be given a variety of interesting properties by being treated with nanoparticles.
According to a study published in the journal Nanomaterials, a number of companies have begun work in this space, including Nanotex, Aspen Aerogel, BASF, and Nano-Horizons. It is difficult to determine how each company constructs and applies their nanoparticle or nanofiber coatings to fabrics because they are often trade secrets, but published research reveals some details about their function.
These coatings repel liquids as simple as water to as complex as coffee, wine, and mustard by applying a layer of hydrophobic molecules to the fabric. As a result, treated fabrics appear impervious to getting wet or stained. The coatings themselves are nearly weightless and do not fundamentally alter the fabric’s nature. As a result, there is no discernible difference in the wearer’s experience.
In addition to stain resistance, research has shown bacteria resistance through the production of reactive oxygen species. As a result, odor-causing bacteria do not accumulate in the material, and your clothes last longer.
Making Machines Lighter and Stronger
Nanotechnology has the potential to enable engineers to modify and improve existing materials. Mixing mundane materials with nanoparticles can change the way those materials behave in interesting ways, just as mixing different types of metals can produce better alloys.
To that end, Michigan State University researchers devised a method for separating layers of graphite into sheets less than 10 nanometers thick (via Science Daily). According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the average human hair is between 80,000 and 100,000 nanometers wide.
Their material, xGnP Exfoliated Graphite NanoPlatelets, can be used alone or in conjunction with plastic to make products stiffer, lighter, and stronger. They propose that this novel material combination could be used to create stronger and more fuel-efficient cars, as well as lighter-than-air rockets capable of reaching space.
Furthermore, the material is electrically and thermally conductive, as well as small enough to be used in transparent coatings, allowing for yet another avenue of application in the energy sector. It could be used in a new class of batteries or as a conductive coating for solar panels in the future.
Better Ways of Fighting Cancer
Standard cancer treatments are extensive and risk damaging nearby healthy tissues. It is difficult to target tumors exclusively, whether a doctor uses surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. As a result, some patients experience longer recovery times and undesirable side effects (via the National Cancer Institute).
Nanotechnology is not only delivering new treatment methods in the fight against cancer; it is also assisting in making existing treatments more effective. Some cancers are resistant to treatments such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Tel Aviv University researchers, on the other hand, have created nanoparticles that use RNA to effectively disable a tumor’s built-in armor, leaving it vulnerable to attack from conventional treatments (via EurekAlert!). It packs a one-two punch by inhibiting the cancer’s HO1 enzyme, weakening the tumor’s defenses while also boosting the patient’s immune response.
Ultra-High Definition TV
We expect our televisions to provide larger and better images as consumers. However, in order to improve something, you must sometimes look to the very small, and nanotechnology is making this possible.
LG, one of the world’s leading television manufacturers, has developed NanoCell technology. Because it is a proprietary technology, it will only be found on LG TVs unless LG decides to license the technology to competitors in the future (via How-To Geek).
We don’t know exactly what’s going on beneath the surface because it’s proprietary, but we do know a little about how it works thanks to information in LG’s product descriptions. NanoCell TVs, according to the company, use a layer of nanoparticles distributed between the screen and the light source. Certain wavelengths of light from the RGB spectrum are filtered out by these particles. The goal is to block out dull colors and allow only the brightest ones to shine through. As a result, the image is said to be more lifelike and vibrant.
Because the wonders of nanotechnology have been largely imagined on screen, it’s only natural that visual entertainment will be one of the first ways it interacts with the public.
Purchasing a new phone, television, computer, or other electronic device is a significant investment. Most of us don’t do it on a whim, and the worst thing that can happen after the money has left your bank account is that your new toy sustains damage. Cracked screens and faulty internal electronics can quickly turn your investment into a costly paperweight. If only electronic devices could heal in the same way that our bodies do. They can now, thanks to the right kind of nanotechnology.
Scientists from the Israel Institute of Technology were working with double perovskite nanocrystals when they discovered that under the right conditions, they could heal damage to their structures (via Advanced Functional Materials). Because double perovskites have electro-optic properties, they are a viable alternative to materials currently used in electronic products.
Scientists discovered crystal voids when they examined the crystals under an electron microscope (read: damage). Scientists were able to remove innate voids as well as acquired voids by engineering the surface of the crystals. The crystals were able to move the voids outward and toward the edge, effectively healing themselves (via Science Daily). This could lead to a new class of electronics that can repair themselves.
Healing Spinal Injuries
Spinal injuries can be one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person in terms of recovery, owing to the spine’s inability to heal itself. Fibrous scar tissue typically forms around the wound site after a severe spinal injury, preventing nerves and blood vessels from reconnecting. The signals are sent by the body to heal the wound, not to regenerate previous connections.
A recent study conducted by scientists at Northwestern University may have discovered a solution. Their treatment consisted of an injection of nanofibers that formed a scaffold capable of stimulating connection and communication between spinal tissues, thereby facilitating regeneration (via Science).
Supramolecular peptide fibril scaffolds with two peptide sequences were used in the injection. They slowed the formation of fibrous scar tissue, promoted axon regeneration, prevented neuron death, and improved blood vessel production after injection (via Sci Tech Daily).
The treatment was tested on mice who had spinal injuries that resulted in paralysis. The mice were able to walk again four weeks after treatment. Furthermore, the injection is absorbed by the body in about 12 weeks with no observable side effects.
The annual flu shot is a one-time event. You walk into your neighborhood pharmacy, get a quick poke, and you’re good to go for the season. However, many COVID-19 vaccines require multiple doses at varying time intervals. That means you’ll have to schedule several appointments with your pharmacy or doctor to get shots, which can take weeks or months. This can be especially difficult with children or for people with hectic schedules.
Thanks to nanotechnology, you may be able to get an entire vaccine schedule in a single shot in the future.
Scientists used nanotechnology to create capsules with a hollow core that housed multiple vaccine doses, according to a 2022 study published in Science Advances. These doses are then distributed at a later date. The composition of the nano-lid, capsule’s as well as how it interacts with the body, is the key to its success. The shell’s lid becomes increasingly porous over time, until it reaches a critical breaking point and opens up. When this occurs, the payload is discharged into the body. Furthermore, the composition of the capsule can influence when the drug payload is released.
That means a single injection could contain capsules of various designs, each designed to deliver one dose immediately and one or more doses weeks or months later, all without requiring another visit to the doctor’s office.
New Energy Sources
As human-caused climate change worsens, the search for alternative energy sources accelerates. Scientists are currently working on nanotechnology systems for harvesting energy from the environment or even human movements.
A team at the University of Texas at Dallas has developed twistrons, a type of yarn containing nanofibers. When the fibers are stretched or bent, the kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy, which can then be measured or harvested (according to the University of Texas at Dallas).
In terms of large-scale energy generation, the fibers could be integrated into devices placed in the environment to collect energy from natural movements such as waves or wind. Perhaps more intriguingly, the fibers can be woven into and worn as everyday garments, generating electricity as the wearer goes about their day.
To put that potential application to the test, researchers created a glove with twistrons. Following that, the wearer moved their fingers to form various letters in American Sign Language. The glove not only successfully generated electricity, but the researchers were also able to distinguish between the various signs being made based on the energy output. As a result, the glove could be used as a self-powered sign language translator.
Access to safe drinking water is one of the most basic human needs, yet according to the World Health Organization, roughly one-third of the global population did not have a reliable source of clean water as of 2019.
Gathering enough water for large populations, ensuring its safety, and delivering it to the masses all necessitates significant infrastructure. Building those systems is costly and time-consuming, but nanotechnology may provide an alternative solution. Scientists from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss public research university, have developed a new water filtration device that employs titanium dioxide nanowires and carbon nanotubes (via Nature).
When combined with sunlight, the system kills pathogens in water via a photocatalytic reaction. As a result, reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide are produced. The study shows that the system is effective at removing bacteria and viruses from water, and it may also be effective at removing other contaminants. Researchers obtained preliminary evidence that the system removed traces of some drugs and pesticides in a pilot study. Their test device was small and portable, allowing it to be deployed in high-need areas without the need for complex infrastructure.
Oil Spill Clean Up
Oil spills are among the most destructive environmental disasters, and they are notoriously difficult to clean up. Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. The oil covered approximately 1,300 miles of coastline and killed numerous animals. Despite a concerted cleanup effort, pockets of oil continue to be discovered in the area today (via History).
Shifting to alternative energy sources (perhaps the above-mentioned twistron materials) could prevent future oil spills, but if that is not possible, nanoparticles could provide an alternative cleanup solution. Scientists are investigating a variety of metal nanoparticles, such as iron oxide particles, nanocomposites, and carbon nanotubes, as possible methods of simplifying oil spill cleanup efforts (via Environmental Nanotechnology, Monitoring & Management).
The procedure is straightforward. These particles could be used at a spill site and mixed in with the oil. Because the particles are hydrophobic, there is little chance that they will dissolve in water. Once we have an oil and nanoparticle slurry, we can simply use magnets to grab onto the mixture and separate it from the water (via CNN). Furthermore, researchers believe the particles could be removed from the oil if desired, allowing it to be used as intended.
Reducing Climate Change
Getting our planet to a carbon neutral or carbon negative state in the near future is a big project, but it’s one we’ll need to complete if we want to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. One method is to reduce emissions; another is to capture emissions. Because carbon concentrations are already higher than we would like, a combination of the two is likely.
Anna Douglas founded SkyNano while pursuing her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. The company has created an electrochemical process that converts gaseous CO2 emissions into solid carbon nanotubes. Greenhouse gases enter the system, and carbon nanotubes and oxygen exit (via Forbes).
The technology has the advantage of sequestering carbon that would otherwise have entered the atmosphere — indeed, the company claims the carbon can be stored for more than 1,000 years — and there are other downstream applications. Carbon nanotubes, as demonstrated by the other technologies we’ve discussed, have a wide range of applications in the nanotechnology space.
This technology has the potential to transform one of humanity’s most pressing issues into a valuable resource that could benefit many people. They estimate they can address 10% of global emissions, which isn’t a complete solution in and of itself, but it’s not a bad start.