In 1959 Richard Feynmannh first spoke about nanotechnology in a lecture entitled There is plenty of room at the bottom. What would be the properties of materials if we could place the atoms as we would like? We would have access to a wide range of properties that materials can have and we could do a lot of things. Feynmann won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics.
This is precisely what nanotechnology does today, a revolutionary discipline from which advances capable of changing our world are still awaited and yet it is tremendously unknown. According to available data, about 96% of Spaniards are unaware of what it means.
Nanotechnology defines the sciences and techniques that are applied at a nanoscale level, that is, very small measures that allow working the molecular structures and their atoms. It is used to create materials, devices and systems with unique properties. In practice, they are the same materials already known (metals, ceramics and glasses, polymers…), but that the advance in the methods allows to process them in a very small scale, at a nano scale, 10-9, and hence its name, nanotechnology, nanomaterials, nanoparticles.
In the food sector, bio-sensors are developed that detect pathogenic microorganisms in food, as well as nanoparticles to modify the texture and flavor of food, stabilize its nutrients, etc. In the field of lamedicine, one of the most promising, innovative nanoparticles have been implemented against dangerous infections or neurodegenerative diseases. Research is carried out in relation to the controlled release of drugs that, traveling in nanocapsules inside the body, reach the infectious focus or the sick region to be released. Numerous small sensors, computers and different implantable devices that will be developed at very low costs will allow a continuous control on people’s health, as well as their automatic treatment.
Completely new materials have also been synthesized, such as fullerenes or carbon nanotubes that are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair, but which in return have an amazing resistance about 100 times higher than that of steel.
Thanks to these new properties, bicycles weighing less than a kilogram are already being made, for example. In the field of electronics, micro transistors can be designed. For example, a radio the size of a grain of sand has already been manufactured.
Nanotubes, on the other hand, can be incorporated into common materials to give them their properties. There are clothes made with textiles that include hydrophobic or bactericidal particles, so that they repel moisture and take longer to get dirty; air purifying filters with antibacterial nanoparticles. The food industry is already using different food packaging with hydrophobic and antibacterial nanoparticles, capable of preserving food for longer. There are currently 1,300,000 end products on the market.
The use of inorganic or organic additives in order to reinforce a polymeric material is a widespread practice in the plastics industry. Normally, the reinforcing particles used are between 10 and 300 microns in size and the benefits of using these materials are well known. However, when the additive has a dimension of the order of magnitude of the nanometer, the interface per unit volume of the two components (polymer and additive) is enormously large and the properties of these nanocomposites differ dramatically from those of traditional compounds.
This change in properties has two origins: on the one hand, the mobility of the polymer chains is affected due to the increase in the contact surface with the load. These interactions cause changes in the glass transition temperature of the polymer, its free volume and the characteristic relaxation times. On the other hand, new properties arise when the size of the charge decreases to the fundamental length scale of a physical property. A typical example for the dependence of properties on particle size is the increase of the fluorescent intensity of gold by a factor of ten million when the particles are reduced to the size of nanometers. Another example is the appearance of the phenomenon of superparamagnetism when the size of particles is reduced to
Nanotechnology and its applications are increasingly present in our lives. It is an advance whose impact could be comparable to the Industrial Revolution, which predicts changes in the structure of society and in the economic and political system. It remains to be established whether the great potential of nanotechnology will be exploited to improve the quality of human life or to create greater problems and imbalances.
In this regard, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology warns that it is necessary and urgent a responsible management of this emerging technology in which, as noted in his blog Decent Nanowork, Asun Galera, a graduate in Biology from the UB, and doctor from the UPC, ‘everything is to regulate’.