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Nanotechnology refers to the scientific study, research and reengineering of the properties of atoms and molecules. There’s a great deal of controversy around this science, as it is intended to reshape the building blocks of matter. Like with all growing fields, there are costs and benefits, and due to its infinitely broad usage for applications, nanotech will impact our daily life in a profound way we have only started to see.
Introduced to the world in 1959 by physicist Richard Feynman, nanotechnology was conceptualized as synthesis through the reconstitution of atoms and molecules.
Over the past decade-and-a-half, nanotech has been one of the globe’s fastest-growing industries, evolving each year significantly with great new applications. We’ve seen incredible innovation in energy, robotics, agriculture, health, computation, military intelligence and manufacturing. Those are just a small sampling of the sectors in which nanotech has been a great leader in advancement.
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Through particle rescaling and manipulation, nanotech creates chemical bonds that are sometimes hundreds of times more potent than steel. These bonds increase a material’s surface area, allowing for more atoms to interact with it, making the material more robust, more conductive and more malleable than its natural-sized counterparts. How the particles are manipulated affects how dense or light, big or small, visible or transparent, reflective or absorptive to waves a nanotech product is. The objects of particle manipulation are referred to as nanomaterials.
Nanomaterials are classified into two main categories: naturally occurring (such as blood hemoglobin) and artificially developed (such as quantum dots). Of the artificially generated nanomaterials, there are four common types: carbon-based, metal-based, dendrimers and nanocomposites. While carbon-based and metal-based nanomaterials are formed through the chemical manipulation of elements to derive micro-matter constructs, dendrimers either expand outwardly from a strong core or inwardly from a solid outer shell, and nanocomposites combine different nanomaterials and larger-scale high-volume materials. To be considered a nanomaterial, the engineering must operate within the parameters of a nanoscale’s nanometer, which translates to a billionth of a meter.
Nanotechnology is already widely present in our daily life. You may not realize it, but it is in everything from textiles to food packaging to transportation. For example, in recent years, nanotech has been used to create lightweight road, sea, air and space vehicles. In the medical sector, nanotech has allowed for better imaging tools, diagnostic technology and even within medicine itself, including delivering antigens to compromised cells while avoiding healthy cells. And how was that accomplished? The answer might seem like it’s out of the pages of sci-fi– but it’s happening today.
Nanobots are nanoscopic machines programmed to deliver a specific task. They’ve been functional on both bioorganic matter and inorganic matter and have been central in many of today’s significant advancements in virology, clean energy, water filtration and 3D printing. Nanobots can deliver medicine, move as a unit to improve the source collection of wind and solar resources, clean contaminated water and link together to replicate a 3D object and enact the point of its function.
Currently, nanotech is researching several world-changing initiatives. Self-repair of structural surfaces is now in the testing phase. This could be revolutionary for transportation infrastructure, allowing nanotech to bind to damaged roads, bridges and railways to correct structural issues and material deficits.
Synthesis of enzymes is also in the works, as is synthetic ethanol. A finite resource naturally derived from fossils, ethanol has various uses, from fuel to household cleaning products to acting as a binding agent for personal care products.
Robust rechargeable industrial battery systems are another avenue of exploration for which nanotech actively seeks real-world testing. Imagine the generation of an infinite amount of electricity. This may soon be possible through nanobots deployed as self-adaptive sensors, working in tandem with nanomaterials fabricated into self-servicing generators capable of powering cities with environment-friendly energy.
Another investigational innovation is replacing computer microchips with nanochips capable of fitting your computer and phone’s entire memory on infinitesimal storage units. Since nanotransistors already exist and have been commercially operating since 2014, we may not be so far off from this development.
Gene-sequencing and genetic engineering are incorporating nanotech in illness eradication and the study of tissue-and-organ regeneration. While this is one of the farthest from practical implementations of nanotech’s practical applications, it poses significant promise. We’ve poised to eventually engineer sequencing at the gene level to help eliminate hereditary illnesses and replace the sequences with positive characteristics and traits.
While it can be argued that the future of nanotech is happening now, we have barely scratched the surface. For example, the meeting of nanotechnology with self-realizing AI has long been theorized for its potential benefits in predicting, resolving and managing environmental crises and space exploration through analyzing universal patterns and behaviors. Though still far away, the applications to make climate concerns a thing of the past or develop new climate systems on otherwise inhabitable planets are pretty plausible.
Projected to reach $33.63 billion by 2030, from its current $1.76 billion market size value, nanotech is well on its way to trending as one of the current fastest-growing sciences, not just due to its percentage increase, but in its continued collaboration with industries across the board, and sharing budget of their market share. Future applications are genuinely limitless through nanotechnology, and living during this age of exploration is exciting.