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The concept of Nanotechnology was conceptualised by a physicist named Richard Feynman in 1959 in which he described scientists having the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. Unbeknownst to him, a decade later this idea would be coined ‘nanotechnology’.
With the invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (SCP) and the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) in the early 80’s allowing us to actual see objects at an atomic level, the concept of nanotechnology really began to take shape.
One of the most difficult things for a layman to grasp about nanotechnology is the scale of it all. It’s small, really, really, small. One nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter. To put that into perspective, it’s a hundred-thousandth of the width of a human hair or, to look at it another way, if a nanometer was the size of a marble, the Earth would be the equivalent of a meter.
Sounds crazy right? Despite how small it is, the atomic scale is even smaller (An atom has a diameter of about 0.1 nm and an atom's nucleus is even smaller at about 0.00001 nm). This means that nanotechnology is capable of interacting with objects at an atomic level which is significant for the future development of the technology.
How’s That Useful?
Think of it this way, the human body is made up of millions, even billions of living cells which act in the same way as a nanobot would. They work together to ensure the atoms create the correct materials and those materials are applied to the correct part of the body. Sometimes they will change the composition of tissue or build new parts as required.
Nanotechnology, and nanobots, are like mini engineers that can work on materials on a super small scale. It can be programmed to carry out orders just like an engineer would on a project which means the possibilities of nanotechnology are pretty endless.
It All Sounds a Bit Complicated
That’s because it is. Nanotechnology takes on board a whole multitude of disciplines including engineering, physics, chemistry and biology. It also involves quantum mechanics which is physics at an atomic level (which is a whole different subject in itself). Quantum mechanics differs from regular physics in that much of what works in the real world is completely different at an atomic level. At these microscopic levels, materials can act in a completely different fashion to the materials general properties when experienced in the real world. For example, the material might be an insulator normally but when it is broken down to the level that nanotechnology operates, it becomes a semi-conductor. It’s learning to understand these properties that will lead to further, more practical, applications of nanotechnology.
So What Use Is It?
Putting the complicated background of nanotechnology aside, the implications of this technology are leading scientists to research and develop technologies and materials that are far superior to their regular counterparts.
One example would be the carbon nanotube. Carbon nanotubes are hundreds of times stronger than steel yet six times lighter. The applications of this are endless as the material could be applied to transport vehicles such as planes and cars, making them lighter and stronger than before. The knock-on effects of this would be better fuel efficiency and increased passenger safety.
The medical world could also benefit from nanotechnology. Due to the miniscule size of nanotechnology, doctors could inject our bodies with nanosensors that could detect and monitor anything from blood sugar levels to inflammation. Pushing the boundaries further, nanotechnology could be used to fight more exotic challenges such as tumours and growths.
Nanomaterials are another exciting branch of nanotechnology that could see millions of sensors embedded into materials that can sense any structural degradation of buildings, roads, bridges or aircraft to name a few. It could also allow us to create self-healing materials that could stop cracks developing in integral parts of a structure as big as a house or as small as a microchip.
Big Data can benefit from nanotech too, after all, something must collect all the information that nanosensors provide. This big data could help us tackle many problems from traffic congestion to environmental concerns.
Lots to be Excited About Then?
Indeed. Whilst nanotechnology is still very much in development, the possibilities and practical applications are becoming clearer by the day.
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