Nanostructures are all around us but what exactly are they and how are they used? The Greek word "nano" translates as "little man." In metric measurement it means 1 billionth. Nanostructures are between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm) in dimension, larger than a molecule but smaller than a microscopic object. To put it into context, a nanostructure is one hundred thousand times thinner than a human hair [source: Choy].
Nanostructures occur in nature. Scientists are also engineering them at an incredible pace. The study of nanostructures draws people in from disciplines including physics, biology and engineering. From medical applications to clean energy solutions, nanostructures are taking the world of science and technology by storm.
The birth of nanotechnology is credited to Richard Feynman and his defining talk "There's Room at the Bottom." Nanotechnology, also known as molecular robotics, is taking center stage in the world of nanostructures. It's commonly defined as "the manipulation or self-assembly of individual atoms, molecules, or molecular clusters into structures to create materials and devices with new or vastly different properties [source: Joseph and Morrison].
The largely hypothetical field of nanorobotics holds amazing possibilities for disease management. Nanotechnologies are also being developed that will allow for more efficient space travel and provide cleaner energy sources. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination. Yet nanotechnology is not without controversy. The field is new and it's not yet known what negative health and environmental effects could result [source: Goldman and Coussens].
9. Fossils, Now Available in Color!
Fossils can tell amazing stories. A team of paleontologists from Yale University found preserved color-producing nanostructures in fossilized feathers. These feathers, which are more than 40 million years old, were taken from the Messel Shale fossil pit near Odenwalk, Germany. When looked at under an electron microscope, the feathers displayed a bright, iridescent array of colors. The green, blue and copper colors came from a very thin layer of melanosomes, part of the nanostructures preserved on the surface of the feathers [source: Leonard].
This discovery of fossilized color-producing nanostructures is the first of its kind. Scientists are hoping to use this knowledge to reconstruct the colors of the feathered dinosaurs and maybe even the fur colors of long extinct mammals [source: Leonard].
8. Smarter Living Spaces
One day you might be able to change the shape of everyday objects to suit your needs and tastes. The Living Kitchen Project by Michaël Harboun is working toward creating spaces that are, for lack of a better word, alive. Claytronics, the concept behind the Living Kitchen Project, involves nano-sized robots. In theory, these nanobots could join together to form 3D objects that have digital capabilities. In other words, it's programmable matter [source: Worlton]. You would be able to trace any object you need and it would appear on the wall instantaneously [source: Fahey]. The amazingly cool factor of Claytonics aside, such technology would reduce clutter and cut down on appliances. Why buy what you need when you could draw a working one?
7. Science Fiction and Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology has been the fodder for hundreds of story lines over the years. While concepts like tiny robots that can travel through the human body have become reality, others have remained firmly in the world of fiction. It's worth taking a look backward to see what's in front of us.
The Borg Collective of the "Star Trek" franchise is nanotechnology evil at its best. The Borg invade planets and space ships, assimilating humans into their "hives" using nanoprobes. Stripping their victims of "useless emotions" and other individual characteristics, the Borg attempt to parlay their technical superiority into galactic dominance.
Kim Exler Dexter's Gray Goo, from his popular book "Engines of Destruction," foretells of a future taken over by nanorobots gone amok. As they convert organic material into gray goo, things take a turn for the worse.
While the probability of human-gobbling goo or artificial intelligence one day overtaking the world is remote, it's still fun to think about. That said, real-life nanotechnology raises real questions about safety.
What is nanofood? Food that uses nanotechnology at any point during its production process is considered nanofood [source: FDA]. There are 600 nanofoods on the market today including a variety of canola oil that can block cholesterol from entering the bloodstream [source: PEN]. Ideas for tomorrow are growing at a rapid rate. They include:
- Chocolate milkshakes that taste better and are more nutritious than their non-nano counterparts
- Bread containing nanocapsules that disperse omega-3 fatty acids
- Interactive food that allows you to choose the taste and color
- Smart packaging that prolongs shelf life and minimizes chance of contamination
The arrival of nanofoods hasn't gone unnoticed. Controversy swirls around its relatively seamless integration into our food supply. Proponents of nanofood see it as a solution to such problems as global hunger and food safety. Critics hold that safety concerns and environmental impacts have been outpaced by rapid nanofood engineering, going largely ignored by large corporations and slipping under consumer radar.
5. Nanostructures As Art
Nanostructures offer the ability to engineer technical marvels as well as create stunning pieces of art. Museums around the world have installations dedicated to this genre. Using scanning electron microscope photography, artist Christian Orfescu creates abstract landscapes. He calls his work "nanoart" and has been organizing annual competitions for other artists working with nanostructures [source: The New York Times].
"Nanoart" is also being used to cross from science to art and back again. At the University of Cambridge, nanostructure photography reveals "complex amorphous and crystalline material" that in turn may lead to the creation of a new material. This new object may have future applications to electronic and photonics devices [source: Ho].
Nanorobots are one of the hottest developments in nanomedicine. In the not-so-distant future these tiny objects may responsible for curing deadly diseases with minimal side effects. Current research points to nanorobots that could be used to target and destroy tumors, deliver medicine to specific points in the body or break up blood clots. How they'll move will depend on the design. Ideas include an internal power source or using the patient's body to generate power. Sperm are even being considered to send these tiny bots all around the body [source: Nelson].
Nanobots aren't the only game in town. Scientist at MIT and Harvard have just engineered particles they're calling nanoburrs that adhere to artery walls and release medicine [source: Gaudin].
3. Space Travel
Space elevators with cables made from resilient carbon nanotubes (CNT) are one possibility for efficient and cost effective space travel. In theory, these cables would be used to tether an elevator to the ground, eliminating the cost and energy use of transporting cargo via ship [source: NASA Science News].
The health of astronauts is a primary concern in space travel. Self-mending spacesuits with two layers of nanorobots have been proposed by researchers. The first layer would be able to self-mend issues like punctures to a spacesuit. The second layer would be able to administer medications in emergencies [source: Boysen]. Spacesuits won't be the only things that can heal themselves. Lightweight spacecraft made from nanotube composites would allow for more efficient travel. Instead of rocket fuel, solar sails made from thin layers of nanotubes would reflect light, propelling the space ship. There is the possibility of self-mending space ships repairing structural damage themselves [source: Boysen].
2. Power Up with Nano Flakes
Nano flakes sound like something we'd eat but they're not; what they may be is the next generation of clean energy production. Nano flakes are semi-conducting nanostructures that can absorb the sun's energy more efficiently and cheaply than current solar panels. The scientists working on this project, which is in the prototype stage, believe nano flakes will be able to convert up to 30 percent of solar energy into electricity. That's approximately twice the amount of electricity produced by solar panels [source: Science Daily].
The jury's still out on whether nano flake solar cells can actually be put in production, but one thing's for sure -- nanotechnology is pushing the envelope when it comes to producing clean energy.
1. Nature's Nanocreatures
Marine algae, known as diatoms, contain light-bending nanostructures that convert sunlight into energy needed for reproduction. Scientists think replicating these structures could help develop biosynthetic devices such as a light-activated drug delivery system [source: Mitchell].
Lotus plants have an amazing ability to repel water from their smooth leaves, thanks to hydrophobic wax crystals about 1 nanometer in size. Water rolls off, taking dirt with it, making the lotus a "self-cleaning" plant. Scientists are using this concept to engineer more sustainable cleaning sprays. Another goal? The self-cleaning shoe [source: Kalaugher].
The beautiful blue wings of the Morpho Rhetenor butterfly of Brazil are the result of layers of nanostructures. These nanostructures absorb light and reflect a wavelength creating an "optical interference" and the resplendent blue we see. Laboratories can use this same process to analyze light [source: Martin]. It may also be possible to replicate the construction of nanostructures in butterflies' wings to create improved "optic effects" in products like paint and varnish [source: Science Daily].
Lots More Information
- How Nanobots Will Work
- How Scanning Electron Microscopes Work
- Will nano flakes revolutionize solar energy?
More Great Links
- Boysen, Earl. "Understanding Nanotechnology." April 29, 2007. (accessed September 5, 2010) http://www.nanotech-now.com/columns/?article=054
- Center For Food Safety. http://truefoodnow.org/campaigns/genetically-engineered-foods/
- Choy, Tat Sang. "What are Nanostructures?" May 1998. (accessed September 4, 2010). http://www.phys.ufl.edu/~tschoy/nanostructure.html
- Fahey, Mike. "The Living Kitchen Project Imagines a Gesture-Based Future." August 13, 2010. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2010/08/the-living-kitchen-project-imagines-a-gesture-based-future/
- Fedder, Barnaby, J. "Doctors Use Nanotechnology to Improve Healthcare." New York Times. November 1, 2004. (accessed September 5, 2010) http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/01/technology/01nano.html
- Garber, Kathy. "Nanotechnology Food Coming to a Fridge Near You." December 2006. (accessed September 2010) http://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=1360.php
- Gaudin, Sharron. "Scientists Use Nanotech to Prevent Heart Disease." January 19, 2010. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9146078/Scientists_use_nanotech_to_prevent_heart_disease
- Goldman, Lynn. Coussens, Christine. "Implications of Nanotechnology for Environmental Health Research." (accessed September 8, 2010) http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11248&page=R1
- Ho, Ghim Wei. "Nanostructure Gallery." (accessed September 6, 2010) http://www.nanotech-now.com/Art_Gallery/ghim-wei-ho.htm
- Kalaugher, Liz. "Lotus Effect Shakes Off Dirt." November 8, 2002. (accessed September 7, 2010). http://nanotechweb.org/cws/article/tech/16392
- Leonard, Jenny. "Clues to Feather’s Technicolor Past." Futurity, Yale University News. August 28, 2009. (accessed September 4, 2010). http://www.futurity.org/earth-environment/clues-to-feathers-technicolor-past/
- Joseph, Tiju. Morrison, Mark. "Nanotechnologies in Agriculture and Food." May 2006. (accessed September 2010). http://www.nanoforum.org/dateien/temp/nanotechnology%20in%20agriculture%20and%20food.pdf?11072006040222
- Martin, Sandrine. "Nanostructures in Nature." (accessed September 6, 2010) http://www.nnin.org/nnin_nature.html
- Miller, Georgia. "Nanotechnology: The New Threat to Food." October 30, 2008. (accessed September 4, 2010). http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=10755
- Mitchell, Elizabeth. "Diatoms Nanostructures Bend Light." September 10, 2008. (accessed September 8, 2010) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7608369.stm
- NASA Science News. "Adaucious &Outrageous: Space Elevators." September 2000. (accessed September 5, 2010) http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2000/ast07sep_1/
- Nelson, Bryn. "Scientists Look to Sperm to Power Nanobots." January 1, 2008. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22333518/
- The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. http://www.nanotechproject.org/
- R&D. "High Speed Filter Uses Electrified Nanostructures to Purify Water at Low Cost." August 31, 2010. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://rdmag.com/News/2010/08/Materials-Nanotechnology-High-speed-filter-uses-electrified-nanostructures-to-purify-water-at-low-cost/
- Science Daily. "Energetic Nanoparticles Swing Sunlight into Electricity." February 22, 2008. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/02/080221082950.htm
- Science Daily. "Pigmentation in Some Butterfly Wings Created by Nanostructures." January 22, 2008. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080117201947.htm
- Science Daily. "Nano Flakes May Revolutionize Solar Cells." December 19, 2007. (accessed September 7, 2010) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071218105420.htm
- Worlton, John. "Claytronics--Objects of Imagination." Carnegie Mellon. http://www.cmu.edu/corporate/news/2007/features/claytronics.shtml