Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Tech news: Nanotechnology everywhere

By Prof Louis C H Fourie Time of article published Mar 13, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG -  Nanotechnology, or the science and technology of manipulating matter at the atomic, molecular and macromolecular level, is an important driving force behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and is one of the fastest growing and most innovative fields in the world. 

Nanotechnology encompasses the production and application of physical, chemical, and biological systems at scales ranging from individual atoms or molecules to around a hundred nanometers. To get an idea of the scale of nanotechnology, the area of the dot of this ”i” comprises about one million nanoparticles. 

Because of their larger surface-area-to-mass ratio, materials on a nanoscale become more chemically reactive and change their strength and other properties. Furthermore, below fifty nanometers the laws of classical physics give way to quantum physics, eliciting different optical, electrical and magnetic behaviours. 

Nanotechnology has therefore changed the way engineers and scientists think and thus largely influenced future technologies and solutions. Major breakthroughs were made in the fields of the manufacturing and modelling of nanostructured metals; submicrometric nanomagnetics; nanospintronics (intrinsic spin of the electron used in nanoscale devices); biogenic nanoparticles; nonlinear optical microscopy on a nanoscale; graphene quantum dot magnetism; nanofabrication on the level of a billionth of a metre (10-9 m); and many more.

The convergence of several scientific disciplines (chemistry, biology, electronics, physics, and engineering) is leading to a multiplication of applications in materials manufacturing, computer chips, medical diagnosis and health care, energy, biotechnology, space exploration, security to name but a few. This is the reason why nanotechnology is expected to have a significant impact on the economy and society within the next ten years as further scientific and technological breakthroughs are made.

The speed of advancement and the impact of developments in nanotechnology are so strong that totally new fields of study are necessary to fully understand the possibilities and risks, for example, nanomedicine and nanotoxicology (the study of the toxicity of nanomaterials). Because of quantum size effects and large surface area to volume ratio, nanomaterials have unique properties that affect their toxicity.

Professor Norio Taniguchi of Tokyo University has coined the term nanotechnology in 1974 while working on the development of ultra-precision machines. But is was the development of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer in 1981 that made modern nanotechnology possible. For the first time ever researchers were able to view atoms on the surface of materials. In 1989 Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer from IBM’s Almaden Research Centre manipulated thirty-five individual xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. This ability to manipulate atoms was the origin of the applied use of nanotechnology.

Over the next decades nano-research has grown exponentially and resulted in many consumer products using nanotechnology. In 2004 the remarkable material graphene was rediscovered and isolated by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov from the University of Manchester for which they received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. 

In 2016 Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard L. Feringa were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their research in developing nano-scale machines, amongst others, a molecular motor.

Scientists eventually developed the ability to tailor nanomaterials to specific needs, in the form of engineered nanomaterials such as coatings (paints, lacquers), anti-bacterial clothing, cosmetics, and food products. Nanomaterials are currently widely used and are ever expanding. Some of the applications and possibilities of nanotechnology are:
Medicine: Nanomedicine enables the early detection and diagnosis of cancer using nanoprobes for imaging and biomarker detection; targeted drug delivery such as mesoporous silica (SiO2) and gold (Au); lipid nanotechnology; nanobiosensors in the field of proteomics (large-scale study of proteins) and genomics for the prevention and control of diseases; nanoparticle encapsulation for the treatment of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s chorea, Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and diseases of the eye; nanofibre membrane meshes that can be applied to heart tissue; and subcutaneous chips to continuously monitor key body parameters.

Human and environmental health: Water purification through the adding of nanomaterials to waterwells; nanocapsules for pesticide delivery; nanotechnology used in sporting equipment such as carbon nanotubes in tennis rackets for lightness and strength and clay polymer nanocomposites in long-lasting tennis balls; the waterproofing of textiles through the use of nanofibres; smart clothes and wearable electronics; and Nanotubes used to increase the efficiency of solar cells.

Food and cosmetics: Nano-foods containing nanocapsules that can create interactive drinks that can change colour and flavour; nanopackaging of food for longer shelf life; nanosensors for temperature and harmful pathogen monitoring; nanoclay for protection; nanocapsules for the improvement of bioavailability of nutrients; nanosize powders to increase supplement uptake; additives in creams and sunblock such as titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc dioxide (ZnO2) to filter ultraviolet rays from the sun; and ultrathin polymer and scratch-resistant coatings based on transparent nanocomposites on sunglasses.

Technology and industry: Use of quantum dots in LED and smartphone screens for high resolution and accurate colour reproduction; additives to paints (e.g. silica nanoparticles), coatings and primers to make surface materials more durable, water- and stain-resistant; improvement of physico-chemical properties (durability, lustre, and water-resistance) of construction materials; lighter, stronger, lightweight automotive materials such as reinforced car bumpers; self-cleaning window glass coated with titanium oxide nanoparticles that react to sunlight and break down dirt; and biological sensors, uniform material, communication and weapons in the military.

Agriculture: Nanoseeds with rearranged DNA; nanoparticle pesticides; bioactive polystyrene nanofeed for chickens that bind with bacteria as an alternative to chemical antibiotics; and nanoparticle vaccines in trout ponds.

Although the above a just a partial list of the innovative use of nanotechnology, it bears witness to the trillions of rand worldwide being poured into nanotechnology research and development with tremendous results.  According to the website the leaders in nanotechnology innovation towards the end of 2019 were:
It is apparent that the USA has been leading in innovations in the field of nanotechnology and registered more than 8 900 nanotechnology patents (45.16%), followed by South Korea with 1105 patents (10.69%), Japan with 918 patents (8.88%), and China with 835 patents (7.98%). 

The first European country is Germany in the sixth place with 428 patents (4.14%). 

The strong performance by the East Asian countries in the second to fifth place is noteworthy and a good indication of what to expect in the future. The pioneering countries, namely Germany, France and the UK were only in the sixth to eight places. Saudi Arabia in eleventh place is remarkable since the nanotechnology patents form a large portion (16%) of the total patents registered while the portion in the USA is only 3.1%. 

Unfortunately, South Africa did not make the list of the top twenty nanotechnology innovators.

Nanotechnology is not just the future as many people believe - it is already making a significant contribution to the improvement of our lives. However, despite the voluminous applications of nanotechnology and its future potential, there is one caveat - we do not yet fully understand the implications or risks of nanotechnology for the future, especially in the medical and military fields.

Prof Louis C H Fourie is a Futurist and Technology Strategist. 


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