Sometimes to have big ambitions you need to think small. Technology has allowed scientists to experiment with tiny particles to come up with pioneering products. Nanotechnology deals with innovations in this field – proving key to some products that are already allowing big businesses to tread new ground and to develop others that could shape industries in the future.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the application of technology that seems impossibly small. One ‘nanometer’ is a billionth of a metre in size. 100,000 of these make up just one sheet of a newspaper. Working on this scale allows for precision and innovation and opens up exciting possibilities across a number of industries.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative points out: “Today’s scientists and engineers are finding a wide variety of ways to deliberately make materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of their enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than their larger-scale counterparts.”

Where can we see this in action?

This isn’t some pie in the sky concept. Nanotechnology is already being put to use by big business to deliver the products and services that are already part of many peoples’ lives.

Phys.org offers up a couple of real world examples that show nanotechnology in action.

It explains how activated carbon and silver nanoparticles are used in the water filters that can be found in kitchen sinks.

The article states: “Silver nanoparticles kill algae and bacteria by releasing silver ions (single silver atoms) that enter into the cell wall of the organisms and become toxic. It is so effective and fashionable that silver nanoparticles are now used to coat cutlery, surfaces, fridges, door handles, pet bowls and almost anywhere else microorganisms are unwanted.”

The particles are also to be found in laundry powders, sports equipment and the catalytic converters fitted to vehicles.

What else could nanotechnology do for us?

One business reckons it can harness the power of nanoink to revolutionise the printing industry.

Landa, a digital printing company, has found that ink pigments, reduced to a nanometric scale, can be harnessed as powerful colourants and allow for printing in a very different format.

Crucially, it reckons that nanotechnology can bridge the gap between offset and digital printing, giving the flexibility of digital printing at the same time as the scale and cost of offset. Once again, this tiny technology could make big waves and change the face of an industry.

Flexible and full of potential

We can already see, then, how nanotechnology underpins many innovations and is driving change. This is merely scratching the surface too. In South Africa, engineers are even hoping this can be the key to lowering the cost of new road infrastructure.

Perhaps most exciting of all is the possibilities for medical science. The Guardian recently looked at how the fundamentals of nanotechnology could be used to combat genetic diseases by manipulating cells and altering DNA.

Sara Brenner, assistant professor of nanobioscience at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, said: “Potential applications are virtually endless. But some areas of investigation right now for gene therapy are cancer, diabetes, AIDS, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.” Big ambitions indeed from a technology that deals in the very small.

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