“It’s nanotech — you like it?” asks the billionaire superhero Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., as a metallic liquid crawled to form an armored exoskeleton across his body, activated by the push of his chestplate.
Although this battle scene from Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity Wars is simply fiction, a number of ambitious advancements in the field of nanotechnology can be equated to scenarios dreamt up only in sci-fi: injected sensors playing doctor inside of your body. Self-healing materials, allowing planes to auto-repair mid flight. A self-harvesting answer to climate change, where objects generate a circular economy of energy through movement.
In fact, you’ve probably already had a handful of encounters with commercialized atomic innovation, unwittingly. Nanotech, an industry exploring the qualities of matter on the nanoscale, has actually already premiered in everyday applications.
Nanotechnology Examples and Uses
- Car paint
- Sports equipment
What Is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology studies unique property changes on the nanoscale by way of manipulating atoms and molecules. The intention is to then use these phenomena for use in the design, characterization, production and application for the benefit of materials, structures, devices and systems. This scale ranges from one basic unit, sized in likeness to atoms or molecules, to 100 nanometers. “Nanometer” translates to “one billionth of a meter.”
For reference, hair follicles or a sheet of paper are about 100,000 nanometers thick. Fingernails grow at the rate of one nanometer per second. Cells and bacteria are measured in micrometers — an entirely different scale for objects that outsize nanometric measurements.
If every person were the size of a nanometer, the entire world population would be able to fit into one Hot Wheels matchbox car, as noted by the Australian Academy of Science.
It’s important to note that nanotechnology isn’t simply a miniaturization of what’s happening at eye level. When objects are manipulated on the nanometric scale, they can develop unusual properties — a change in color or increased malleability — that diverge from their presentation on the macroscopic scale. A change in surface area can result in a change in physical, chemical, optical or mechanical makeup. Materials can become more durable, robust or conductive than their life-sized counterparts.
It’s not all science fiction and Marvel superhero suits, however. The stained glass windows decorating European medieval cathedrals and castles, for example, are some of the earliest known use cases of nanotechnology. Artisans discovered that they could create deep purples and rich reds by adding flecks of gold chloride or yellowish ambers from adding silver nitrate. As atomic particles rearrange, they reflect light differently.
Understanding these unpredictable properties that result from manipulating nanomaterials through innovative engineering and fabrication of macro-scale technologies is the task of researchers within this field.
Essentially, nanotechnology can quite literally reshape the world as we know it.
Types of Nanotechnology
There are four major classifications that sort different types of nanotechnology happening now, arranged by the sequence in which they are developed or the mediums in which they work:
• Descending (top-down): This approach minimizes structures and mechanisms currently in use to the nanoscale — ranging from atomic levels to 100 nanometers — to develop new technologies.
• Ascending (bottom-up): Beginning with basic units of a nanometric structure, like an atom or molecule, nanotechnologists build from the ground up.
• Dry: A type of nanotechnology classified by its work with inorganic materials, like metals and semiconductors, that do not work with water.
• Wet: Takes a focus on processes that require water and biological systems that exist in an aqueous environment, such as cells.
Nanotechnology: A Brief History
Current Nanotechnology Examples and Uses
Nanotechnology is all around us. Take a look at some of the ways unfathomably small innovations have made their way into your everyday routines.
Created in a lab and ground down into ultra-fine particles, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are synthetic ingredients added to everyday sun-protection products, as they are highly UV light-absorbent. The inorganic nanoparticles also effectively absorb and scatter visible light, making them feel light and look transparent when applied to the skin.
The beads of rain, balling up then rolling off of your windbreaker, and surprising stink-resistance of weeks-old athleisure wear piled up in the corner of your bedroom can all be credited to nanofibers, or nanotechnology adapted to clothing.
Silica nanoparticles, either woven into the fabric or sprayed onto its surface, keep us dry under umbrellas and in water-repellent clothes.
Silver nanoparticles — commonly used in T-shirts and socks — hold antimicrobial properties, killing odorous bacteria and requiring less frequent wash cycles. Adding copper to the mix creates a protective layer that breaks down food and dirt when in contact with heat or exposed to sunlight. Going one step further, copper-silica nanoparticles chemically deodorize by actively targeting and then modifying stench-causing molecules.
In one study, titanium dioxide was found to enhance wrinkle resistance in cotton fabrics.
Looking ahead, researchers are studying different breeds of foliage to duplicate their superhydrophobic and self-cleaning properties to create ultra water-resistant fabrics patterned with nano-silicone spikes, linked to a phenomenon called the “lotus effect.”
Coatings, varnishes, upholstery as well as the composite and plastic materials furnishing a home sometimes feature a nanotech touch.
When applied to wood, nano-silver, copper and zinc have been known to protect furniture from pests and fungi by naturally producing biocides, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Scientific Research and Innovative Technology. A finishing coat of titanium dioxide can also repel dust and contaminants, according to the paper.
The use of nanomaterials can lead to an extended life cycle for furniture products while reducing maintenance and repair costs, according to researchers at the Helwan University in Egypt.
For safety, adding a small portion of carbon nanofibers to polyurethane foams in upholstered furniture can reduce flammability by about 35 percent, compared to conventional fire retardants researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology found.
The super covalent bonds that stick nano-adhesives together are inspired by the strongest model of van der Waals’ forces — gecko toes.
The billion-odd, tiny, elastic hairs known as setae that line the reptilian’s feet split into even smaller spatulae — about 200 nanometers in width and length — at each end, aiding in the lizard’s one-of-a-kind grip strength.
In 2012, a group of scientists released an adhesive glue dubbed “Geckskin” that could secure 700 pounds to a smooth surface utilizing carbon nanotubes.
“Although carbon nanotubes are thousands of times thinner than a human hair, they can be stronger than steel, lighter than plastic, more conductive than copper for electricity and diamond for heat,” writes Michael Berger, an editor for online nanotechnology publication Nanowerk.
Thinner bonding lines give nano-fillers an advantage over traditionally used micro-scale adhesives, which increases strength and durability. Molecular chains bonded by a silicon, sulfur, carbon and hydrogen cocktail created a nano-glue in 2007 that could not only withstand high temperatures but became stronger as the heat increased.
Nano-ceramic coatings bond with a car’s clear finish, forming a glossy, polymer-protected sealant that repels water, contaminants, UV rays and — not to be left out — damaging uric acid from bird droppings. They are most commonly made from silicon dioxide, but can also be sourced from silicon carbide or graphene.
Typically, the coatings can last two to five years, although the more concentrated mixtures on the market can last over a decade.
Nanotechnology gets in the game with its carbon nanotubes, silica nanoparticles, nanoclays and fullerenes that improve the performance of athletes and their equipment. Nanomaterials can increase strength, stiffness and durability of equipment while reducing weight, friction or wear resistance in uniforms. It’s why golf clubs and racing bikes are lighter. It’s why swimmers and skaters glide faster.
Carbon nanotubes, the most prevalent nanomaterial used in sporting goods, are six times lighter and 100 times stronger than steel and stiff as diamond, according to online nanotechnology publication AZoNano.
In tennis, these carbon nanotubes are infused to strengthen racquet frames, offering more control and power for the player. Nanoclay linings inside of tennis balls act as a barrier that retains inflating gasses and prevents leaks, optimizing bounce and allowing longer gameplay.
But how good is too good? An ethical dilemma arises in what is called “technology doping,” where regulatory institutions draw the line between talent and technology.
As reported by The Guardian, an international governing body banned swimsuits that contained nanofabrics after 168 world records were broken by competitive swimmers wearing the suits, “giving competitors an unfair advantage.” Speedo’s LZR Racer bodysuit can be linked to more than 90 percent of the gold medals won in the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to its polyurethane panel construction, which repelled water, increased buoyancy and reduced drag.
As demonstrated in a decade’s evolution of the smartphone, less is more in the world of computers. The aggressive focus on the efficiency of computer systems is driven by a concept known as Moore’s Law, established in 1965, which predicted that the number of transistors packed into a circuit of a given size would be able to double every two years, per advancements. Thus far, American engineer and author of the principle, Gordon Moore, has been right.
In 2021, IBM announced that it had successfully developed a silicon semiconductor sized at just two nanometers. It holds a 45 percent higher performance rate than today’s most advanced chips, more than triple its size, a press release stated. For reference, this would allow 50 billion transistors to be crammed into a fingernail-sized chip.
Scientists anticipate Moore’s law to hit an inevitable wall, pushing primary composite — silicon — to its optimization limit. Thinner nanomaterials, like graphene, and structural formations, like one-dimensional carbon nanotubing, are currently being considered to architect the next generation of computing transistors.
Analytics and consulting company GlobalData identified some nanotech trends taking off in patient care.
Target specification is a technique where nanoparticles are attached onto drugs or artificial vesicles known as liposomes (essentially, encased water droplets designed for a specific purpose) to seek out specific cells and tissues. This allows medicine to treat diseased or cancerous “cells of interest” directly while avoiding the healthy ones, according to GlobalData.
Another use in the making, controlled drug release, would give care practitioners the ability to control the release of a drug or therapeutic compound by a trigger. Internally, this may be activated by a change in tissue as it develops around a tumor or, externally, by stimuli such as heat, light or ultrasound.
From Heinz to Hershey, the household brands filling out your refrigerator drawers and kitchen cabinets likely contain nanotechnology. AZoNano estimated that there are more than 400 global companies participating in novel, lab-to-table developments.
The field’s leading actors — silver, titanium dioxide, silica, clay, gold and zinc — are the most commonly engineered elements used to manipulate food products on the nanoscale, according to the Center for Food Safety.
Nano-iron has been used to treat water, breaking down organic pollutants and killing microbial pathogens during decontamination.
The fluffy, perma-moist texture of mayonnaise is made possible by nano-emulsion, where fatty, oil droplets overcrowd water and create pockets. Developers believe they can lower the condiment’s fat percentage even more by injecting the fat molecules with water. Nestlé uses this process to guarantee a uniform thawing experience across its frozen aisle products while Unilever reduced the fat percentage of its ice creams from 16 to 1 percent.
Aesthetically speaking, yogurt and coconut flakes rely on titanium dioxide to appear as vibrantly white as possible.
Taste, looks and texture are not the only application of nanotech in the food sector. “Smart” packaging, decked out in nanosensors and antimicrobial activators, like nano-silver, are in production to extend shelf life, improve food safety, indicate contaminated or spoiled products, repair packaging tears and even release preservatives while food products sit in a wrapper.
Today, nanotechnology stops beers from going flat by infusing nano-clay flakes into the plastic bottle walls, barricading fizzy carbon dioxide from escaping and oxygen, breaching its way in, from spoiling the beverage.
Looking forward, bioavailability by way of nanostructures aims to optimize nutritional value in order to demonstrate clear benefits. Researchers are looking to splice table salt to nanometric sizes — roughly one thousand times smaller than it typically appears, The Guardian reported. Increasing salt’s surface area means that the flavor can spread more efficiently. This would increase the salt’s surface area one-million fold, meaning that the flavor can spread more efficiently, reducing salt intake and blood pressure woes without sacrificing any flavor.
Researchers at Northeastern University have developed a fire-retardant aerogel, made up of cellulose nanofibres and metallic phase molybdenum disulphide.The ultra-lightweight, durable material contains a crosslinking structure. Building nano-barriers into housing materials would help block out oxygen while inhibiting toxic substances to release and “fuel” a fire, ultimately certifying its inflammability.
Currently, the team at Northeastern are seeking out commercial and development opportunities to build their fire-retardant nanotech into housing, industry connection platform In-Part reported in a blog post.
Future Uses of Nanotechnology
In its adolescence, the industry itself is still dreaming up what reengineering matter on the nanoscale can do for society.
Its direct hand in COVID-19 response is a top example of this. Tech innovation journal Nano Today attributed the 95-percent efficacy rate of two mRNA-based vaccines specifically to the use of nanocarriers, made up of lipid nanoparticles. It’s a standout marker for modern medicine that lays the groundwork for fighting against future pandemics, as stated in the journal.
Nanotech is also showing promise in tackling climate change, by optimizing energy generation. On an individual scale, this can mean more storage embedded into electric car batteries or, on an industry scale, solar panels with higher conversion rates.
Nanowerk highlighted the work of Zhong Lin Wang, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, who has been developing nanogenerator technology since 2005.
Wang and his team is exploring how to harvest mechanical energy from organic and inorganic materials, essentially operating a system of energy through movement. His work has shown that nanogenerators can be driven by irregular mechanical motion, which includes involuntary biomechanisms such as the vibration of vocal cords or the pulses of a heartbeat to even a hamster wheel or a flag flapping in the wind. Stimuli currently being experimented with include light, temperature variations, glucose — any naturally occuring source that holds a high conversion efficiency.
Although nanotech innovation of tomorrow is small-scale, it’s kind of a big deal.