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Applications, advantages and disadvantages of Nanotechnology

Nano technology: Applications, advantages and disadvantages

Nano-technology is among the most advanced fields of science and like every advanced field, it is full of both risks and opportunities. Several government and private bodies are investing in research on nanotechnology since the field holds immense potential. While the technology holds strong potential in various areas from medicine to IT and energy as well as environment, several risks associated with nano technology have also been noted. Despite these risks, nano technology remains a potentially attractive area and any major development in this field could become the next major breakthrough in the field of science and technology. The potential of nanotechnology is igniting debate and discussion all over the world. Especially in the field of medical technology, it could mean a major step forward in cancer treatment.  However, their potential toxicity has also prevented regulatory agencies from admitting new nano materials for human use.

Nanotechnology holds immense potential in medicine but it is also one of the riskiest areas. In other areas like electronics, IT and energy also, there are potential applications of nano-technology. Careful application of this technology could help the entire humanity. The list of applications and advantages of nanotechnology has grown rapidly and it has the potential to revolutionise several sectors including security, food safety and environmental technology. This article discusses important applications and advantages of nano-technology and major disadvantages.

According to OSHA:

“Nanotechnology involves the understanding, manipulation, and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers (nano.gov). Nanotechnology encompasses science, engineering and technology and involves imaging, measuring, modelling, and manipulating matter at the nanoscale. The development of unique nanoscale structures has the potential to revolutionise industries including electronics, medicine, and consumer products.”

The chief advantages emanating from nanotechnology happen to be related to the manipulation of material at the nanoscale.  The ability to tailor the structure of materials at very smaller scales can help specific properties which is otherwise impossible. The use of nanotechnology can make it possible to add certain properties to matter that make it stronger, lighter, durable, reactive or even better conductors of electricity among several other useful properties. This is the reason that the application of nano technology in commercial products of everyday use has grown.

Some of the applications and benefits of nanotechnology in everyday products and materials are listed here:

  • Making wrinkle and staining resistant clothes.
  • Making the displays of cameras, computers, and eyeglasses self-cleaning and water and residue repellant by applying nanoscale films on them.
  • Nano materials can also be used to make several kinds of product more durable and lightweight. Nanoscale additives in polymer composite materials are used to make several products like baseball bats, tennis rackets etc more durable and lightweight. In the next generation of air vehicles, carbon nanotube sheets will be used which are both lightweight and conductive. This property makes them suitable for both thermal management and electromagnetic shielding.
  • Nano bioengineering could also enable conversion of cellulose to ethanol for fuel. The cellulosic nano materials have applications in a wide range of industries that  include, food, energy, automotive and other sectors. They are less expensive than many other nano materials and also have an impressive weight to strength ratio.
  • A number of nano engineered materials in automotive can increase their performance and productivity. From thermoelectrical materials for temperature control, high power rechargeable battery systems as well as several other products like thin film smart solar panels and similar more.
  • The traditional wear resistant coatings for machine parts are less tough as compared to nanostructure ceramic coatings.
  • The use of nano materials in catalysis for boosting chemical reaction has grown. This is because they reduce the quantity of catalytic materials required to bring desired results as well as save money and reduce pollutants. Apart from petroleum refining, it has found applications in automotive catalytic converters.
  • Nano-engineered materials are also used for making superior products of household use. From air purifiers to stain removers, antibacterial cleansers, as well as specialised paint and similar more products are made using nano engineered materials.
  • Nanoscale products are also being used in several personal care items. One of such products which has been using nano material for improved performance is sunscreen.  Nanoscale titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two such materials used in sunscreens and which are not visible on skin.

Electronics and IT items:

Nanotechnology has greatly contributed to the development of computer and IT industry. It has enabled the growth of faster, smaller and more portable systems.

  • The transistors that enable all the modern computing have kept growing smaller and smaller leading to storage of higher memory on small chips. By the end of the  20th century, the typical transistor was 130 to 250 nm in size. Intel created a 14 nm transistor in 2014 and then IBM the first 7nm in 2015. Even a one nm transistor was made by Lawrence berkley National lab in 2016.
  • MRAM or Magnetic Random Access Memory which is  is enabled by nanometer‐scale magnetic tunnel junctions, can save data quickly during a sudden system shutdown.
  • The UHD displays use quantum dots to display more vibrant colours.
  • The demand for flexible electronics has grown as they find application across a wider range of products like wearables, medical applications, IoT etc. These flexible electronics depend on nano materials (semiconductor nano membranes) like applications in smartphones and e-reader displays.
  • There are other computing and IT related products too that use nano materials including flash memory chips in smartphones, ultra responsive hearing aids and similar more products like flexible displays for e-book readers.
  • Electronics assembly processes used lead based solder and other hazardous materials which have been replaced by nanoparticle copper suspensions.

Medical and Healthcare Applications:

  • Earlier diagnosis, more individualized treatment options, and higher therapeutic success rates are being made possible by the use of nanotechnology enabled imaging and diagnostic tools.
  • Researchers are studying nanotechnology for diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis.
  • Advanced solid state nano materials could allow development of novel gene sequencing technologies that make single molecule detection at low cost and high speed possible.
  • Researchers are working on making the direct delivery of medications to cancer cells possible using nanoparticles with minimum risk of damage to healthy tissues. This can dramatically alter cancer treatment and reduce the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
  • In several areas, researchers are working on nanotechnology for regenerative medicines.
  • It has other advantages in the area of medicine too. For example, nano-researchers are researching on nano-medicine for improved vaccine delivery.
  • Nanotechnology has major applications in imaging and diagnosis. Research has shown that  NP based fluorescence labelling is better than conventional fluorophores.
  • Targeted drug delivery using nano particles is highly effective. Apart from minimal side effects, it is also less costly and has low toxic effect on the other organs.
  • Nanotechnology has also been found to be highly effective in anticancer therapy. Research has shown that antibody-coated magnetic iron NPs is effective at targeting and killing cancer tumours.
  • Nanotechnology has been found to be effective in terms of gene therapy also.

Energy Applications:

The world’s energy demands have increased and in such a scenario, nano technology is playing a critical role with regards to improving the efficiency of energy generation methods. Many researchers are trying to develop clean and efficient methods of energy generation apart from reducing the  toxic pressure on the environment and controlling the energy consumption of the world.

  • Nanotechnology has the ability to improve catalysis and that  is helping at improving fuel production efficiency.  It enables higher efficiency combustion and decreased friction which results in lower energy consumption in vehicles and power plants.
  • Nanotechnology has found application in gas and oil extraction. Nanotechnology enabled gas lift valves are being used in offshore operations. Fractures in down-well oil pipelines are also being discovered with the help of nano particles.
  • Researchers are also investigating nanotechnology options like carbon nanotubes scrubbers or membranes for separating carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust.
  • Wires with carbon nanotubes can reduce transmission losses as they have much lower resistance than the high tension wires that are in use currently. Researchers are currently investigating such options.
  • In future nanotechnology could make production of solar energy cheaper. Incorporation of nanotechnology into solar panels could make them easy to manufacture and cheaper to install.
  • Nano-technology can also improve battery performance vastly. It is already being used for the production of quick charging, efficient and light weight batteries having high power density and with the ability to hold charge for longer.
  • Not just solar energy but nanotechnology has found applications in wind energy too. For example an epoxy containing carbon nanotube is being used for the development of longer and light weight windmill blades that  have the ability to produce higher electricity.
  • Nanotechnology is also being considered for generation of heat from other sources. Thin film solar electric panels that can be fitted into computer cases for harvesting energy on the go or flexible piezoelectric nanowires that can be woven into clothes for generating usable energy on the go from body heat are also being considered.
  • Nanotechnology is also finding application in energy savings and energy efficiency. It is enabling efficient lighting systems as well as reducing energy consumption in electronics.

Application in environmental issues:

Just as it has some important applications in energy issues, Nanotechnology has also found applications in environmental areas. While in this area too, a lot of development is yet to happen, research is going on for faster development.

  • It can help with easy and cheap detection of impurities found in water for removing contaminants and thus making clean drinkable water available affordably.
  • Research has helped find new possibilities through nanotechnology in desalination. Engineers developed a thin membrane that has nanopores and can filter two to five times more water than the conventional filters.
  • Researchers are working on developing nanoparticles that could clean industrial pollutants in ground water. These nanoparticles can render the pollutants harmless through chemical reaction.
  • Nanotechnology is also being researched for cleaning oil during oil spills. Researchers have used magnetic nanoparticles in oil spills.
  • Many nanotechnology based filters that allow for mechanical filtration are also being used as air cabin filters.

Future applications in transportation:

Nanotechnology can contribute to the making of lighter, efficient and safer vehicles. Apart from vehicles, it has got its applications in aircraft, spacecraft and ships too.

  • There are several kind of nano-engineered products that  have the potential to improve automotive performance. From high power battery systems to nano-engineered structural parts and thermoelectric temperature control materials to lower rolling resistance tyres, there are several areas where nanotechnology improves the performance of automotives.
  • Nanoengineering has huge potential in terms of improving the performance of highway infrastructure.  Nanoengineering aluminium, asphalt and other cementous materials has great potential to improve the performance of highway infrastructure and its longevity and reduce their lifecycle cost.
  • Continuous monitoring of the structural integrity and performance of transformation infrastructure can be made possible through the use of nanoscale sensors and devices.
  • Nanotechnology enabled high strength and lightweight materials can bring game changing materials to almost all kinds of vehicles including spacecraft where reducing the weight reduces the energy consumption.

Research has found that Nanotechnology is highly effective in several areas and particularly healthcare and medicine. In future, with the advancement of nanotechnology, more benefits will come to light. It is going to affect several aspects of human life. However, some cons have also been noticed due to which the use of nanotechnology at a larger scale is not being encouraged.

Apart from lung damage, some other side effects of nanoparticles have also been noted. Persistent insoluble particles in in the environment can have far bigger negative effects than those revealed by human health assessments.

The use of nanoparticles can result in toxic side effects on humans. There is still very little awareness about the side effects of nanotechnology and there is need for further research in this area. The microscopic size of nano particles is a gift on the one hand but on the other hand it can be dangerous. While the technology holds immense potential, it requires a lot of caution to handle it. In the wrong hands, its implications could be dangerous as the atomic bomb or weapons of biological warfare.

  • Sources:
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1764161/
  • https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA_FS-3634.pdf