We consider ants to be pretty small creatures. However, despite their miniscule size that often renders them weak against their much larger counterparts, ants are known for the enormous strength held within their tiny bodies. In fact, the neck of an ant has been found to be able to carry up to five thousand times the ant’s body weight . The impressive abilities of the miniature world doesn’t end with ants. Nanotechnology—technological developments that have dimensions within the size range of 1-100 nanometers—exhibit astounding properties that cannot be observed on the macroscale . Because of these extraordinary characteristics, nanotechnology seems to have great prospects in improving numerous industries; however, given its current stage in research, it’s difficult to say when nanotechnology will be utilized to its full potential.
The field of modern nanotechnology began in 1959 with physicist Richard Feynman’s lecture at Caltech, called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In his lecture, Feynman proposed the idea of being able to control matter at an atomic level. Later, the field of nanotechnology boomed with the discovery of fullerenes (a carbon-based nanomaterial) and the development of carbon nanotubes in the 1980s. Because of the capacity of nanotechnology to advance many industries, in the early 2000s, the US government began to finance the initiative in order to ensure that research and development continue at a greater speed .
The seemingly endless capabilities of nanotechnology solely result from the fact that materials behave much differently on the nanoscale than on the macroscale, allowing them to display novel properties. Such properties include a larger surface area as well as the ability to chemically modify the surface of nanoparticles in order to make them more suitable for the application (for example, by changing the solubility of the nanoparticles with the attachment of certain molecules) .
A wide variety of industries hope to exploit nanotechnology’s special abilities, such as agriculture. Nanotechnology can increase the uptake of fertilizers by plants; “nanofertilizers” can securely hold nutrients until the plant can directly absorb them, preventing the loss of nutrients to the soil and thereby improving the effectiveness of fertilizers .
Another industry, and one of the most prolific areas of research for nanotechnology applications, is the medical field. Nanotechnology has the ability to transform the landscape of medicine by being able to target, diagnose, and treat diseases like cancer. For example, nanoparticles can be used in targeted drug delivery, carrying doses to malignant cells while sparing the healthy ones . Additionally, nanospheres can be used to deliver antigens for vaccination, boosting immunity. One of the main benefits of using nanoparticles in drug delivery is that they are small enough to cross through membranes—in particular, the small intestine—unlike their micro-sized counterparts. Further, nanospheres can be developed to be biodegradable, providing an easy solution to the issue of disposing of the nanoparticles .
Perhaps the most pertinent application of nanotechnology is in the energy sector. There has been a significant amount of research done to investigate how nanomaterials can increase the efficiency of solar energy in a way that is sustainable and affordable. Combined with the power of nanotechnology, photovoltaic solar cells have a greater efficiency at a lower manufacturing and electricity production cost due to more effective catalysts. A specific type of nanomaterial, called nanocrystal quantum dots, can convert solar energy at a higher efficiency due to their greater capacity for emitting light. Additionally, dye-sensitized solar cells, a form of nanotechnology, can harvest a greater amount of light due to the larger surface area of the nanoparticles. Given these current discoveries of how nanotechnology can improve the energy industry, nanotechnology could play a critical role in transitioning society to renewable energy and meeting the growing energy demands of our world .
Although nanotechnology seems to have a promising future in our society, there are some who believe that at the current rate of research and development, commercialization of nanotechnology is far away. Because the field is still in its early stages, there are few investors willing to fund research, forcing scientists to solely rely on government funding. Further, mass production of nanotechnology at a low cost is a major obstacle, and there could be unknown risks to humans and/or the environment [3, 6]. If these challenges to commercialization can be overcome, however, it’s clear that nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize modern-day technology.
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