Do you have any idea what this is all about?  We didn’t, so we decided to do a little detective work to try to explain what Nanotechnology represents.  Quoting NNI, “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.  Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.”  Are you with us so far? 

  • A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
  • A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick,
  • A single gold atom is about a third of a nanometer in diameter.
  • Dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers are known as the nanoscale. Unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale. These properties may differ in important ways from the properties of bulk materials and single atoms or molecules.

In other words, it is possible to create new materials and devices that will be used in medical diagnostics, electronics, computing, alternative energy and optics, just to name a few.  In 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanoscience estimated that over 800 manufacturers identified products that are available to the public containing nanomaterials such as titanium dioxide in sunscreen, cosmetics, and some food products, as well as silver in food packaging, clothing, disinfectant and household appliances.  

Nanoscale materials and their effects are found in nature all around us.  Researchers are trying to imitate the flexibility of spider silk, which is naturally reinforced by nanoscale crystals.  They have copied the nanostructure of lotus leaves to create water repellent surfaces used today for stain-proof clothing, fabrics, and materials.  Nanoscale materials are all around us, in volcanic ash, sea spray, and smoke from fire, for example.  Nanoscale tubes of carbon, 1/100,000 the diameter of a human hair, are very strong, and are being used to make bicycles, baseball bats and some car parts.  

Safety concerns for scientists and researchers who work with nanoscale materials are still being studied.   There are potential health risks such as ingestion (unintentional, hand to mouth), skin penetration, lung function, and respiratory problems.  Gloves, respirators, and lab coats are among the PPE that these professionals use for precautionary measures.  More data is needed to ensure their safety as they perform their experiments in this important, emerging field.  Research on workplace safety is a high priority for the agencies of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Research funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Energy and Defense all are contributing to our knowledge about potential effects of engineered nanomaterials on biological systems and recommended practices for working with nanomaterials. 

The U.S. has invested approximately $480 million from 2005 to 2011 for research and development, and environment, health and safety in this field.  Many other countries are involved in this technology,  including several European and Asian countries.

This amazing  process of making engineered materials from uniquely tiny physical and chemical properties is fascinating, even though we don’t completely understand it.

Source:  National Nonotechnology Initiative, NIOSH