Interest in nanotechnology is driven in large part by the fact that properties of materials that are stable and familiar at the macroscale we experience can change radically at the nanoscale. Understanding and harnessing these changes promises to transform our everyday world in ways that may sound like science fiction but may happen in the not-so-distant future.
There are many ways that Nanotechnology applications could unleash Transformative Power
Energy Production and Water Quality
As the science matures, we are going to see giant leaps in efficiencies in energy and water technologies. Because of nanotechnology, new batteries will have a ten times higher density. That means your laptop battery will go from 2 to 20 hours. A small electric car would go from 60 km per charge to 600 km in performance without need for recharge.
Nanotech also allows for the simple disinfection and purification of water. It is already possible to put dirty water in a plastic bottle, leave it in the sun, and UV light will activate nano-particles that will kill all the bacteria. This will have great impacts for the millions of people without access to clean water.
Climate Change Impacts
Globally, nanotechnology can also provides an answer to our CO2 problem. The technology already exists to fix the atmosphere. On a global scale, we are able to turn CO2 in the atmosphere into soil. Soil is a nano-structure and the carbon content in it can be created artificially. Plants breathe in CO2 and through their own growth process convert that into biomass. From there, through nano chemical conversion, we get fresh soil, with the CO2 trapped inside.
This happens all the time in nature, just look at the compost in your garden. Nanotech would simply allow the acceleration and intensification of what happens in nature.
This has advantages beyond saving our atmosphere. Over-use of soil is a major problem around the world. The kind of soil we are talking about producing from CO2 is very fertile. It could be used to solve this problem as well.
Nanotechnology has helped improve our air quality drastically over the past few decades. This is mostly due to new ways of reducing emissions from cars or power plants. Nanotechnology can also improve the performance and cost of catalysts used to transform vapors escaping from cars or industrial plants into harmless gasses.
Companies have also developed a way for catalytic converters to use less metal by incorporating nanoparticles, tiny versions of the metal that is usually used in the converters, instead of the amount of metal more commonly used. By using the nanoparticles, the converter is still creating the same chemical reaction, but uses less metal, and therefor cutting down emissions released into the air.
Imagine how different the world could change nanotechnology was operating at scale. Existing air pollution and its negative effects on health and climate change would be reduced. Cleaning the air would produce a clean-burning fuel that reduces the need to rely on the dangerous fuel sources that polluted the air in the first place. The cities with the highest levels of air pollution would, in theory, become the most abundant sources of clean energy.
There is a current study happening using carbon nanotubes to make cables needed to create a system that can one day take us to space much faster than we can today. This system is also known as a space elevator.
Carbon nanotubes can also be used to make solar sails, which have been theorised to be needed for another form of faster space travel using less fuel and fewer materials to build the spacecraft. The nanotubes would be cheaper, lightweight, and more efficient than any other material.
Using nanoparticles to improve medical imaging, diagnostics and drug delivery, and other forms of therapy. There is no doubt about its potential applications and commercial activity. One example would be in treating HIV/AIDS, improving aspects of treatment such as dosing size, side effects and better patient-to-patient consistency.
Health, Safety and Environmental Impact
Everything which is powerful has the risk to be dangerous. Although nature uses nano all the time, there are serious concerns around the toxicity of nanoparticles suspended in the air or in absorption via the skin. The former relates to the uncertainties about why asbestos (and certain types of silica) particles are toxic. The latter relates to the coating of particles by lipophilic layers than can aid rapid absorption via the skin.
Social and Ethical Issues
There are no serious issues here apart from the rules that apply to all existing science issues. The hysteria about self-replicating nanorobots is based on science fiction and should be treated as all fiction, a story with no real foundation in fact. However, we should recognise that “size” does impart new physical and chemical properties and this fact needs to be included in risk assessments.
Apart from recognition that “size” can alter the physical and chemical properties, the other area that need to be addressed is that of bio-molecule modification. Given that we have the means to alter molecules at the atomic and protein building-block level we do need to have available the means to identify what we have done and assess the implications, preferably quickly and without recourse to “animal experiments”.
These many benefits of nanotechnology depend on the fact that it is possible to tailor the structures of materials at extremely small scales to achieve specific properties. Using nanotechnology, materials can effectively be made stronger, lighter, more durable, more reactive, more sieve-like, or better electrical conductors, among many other traits. Many everyday commercial products are currently on the market and in daily use that rely on nanoscale materials and processes. Overall, nanotechnology is bound to create a more sustainable future for the world.