Auckland University senior lecturer and nanotechnology expert Michelle Dickinson says the field of nanotechnology is going to experience huge growth in the coming years, and will affect most areas of our lives.
Dickinson, who was a keynote speaker at this week's Microsoft TechEd conference, has worked in the nanotechnology field for years and has a nanomechanical research lab at Auckland University. According to Dickinson, although the technology has been around for centuries, we now have the tools to be able to use it and develop it in a vast array of ways that would not have been possible just a few years ago.
"Nanotechnology is definitely going to grow hugely over the next few years," said Dickinson. "I think we're all going to become very literate about nanotechnology, what it means and where it is used in the next five years, and we're going to see it in a lot more places."
Nanotechnology is the science of working with particles that are smaller than 100 nanometers. To put this in perspective, the width of one hair is 100,000 nanometers so to be classified as nanotechnology, the matter has to be 1,000 times smaller than the width of one hair.
Many of us don't realise that we use nanotechnology every day. The reason you can't see sunscreen on your skin anymore is because it is now developed using nanoparticles rather than microparticles. A lot of beauty products such as moisturiser contain nanoparticles and razors often have a nano layer of diamond to give a smoother shave. Stained glass has been around for almost a thousand years and the red colour in stained glass windows is composed of gold nanoparticles which appear red when small enough.
While the explosion of nanotechnology is providing a range of new research and innovation opportunities, Dickinson also noted that it was often a long journey from a prototype to commercialisation.
Here are just a few of the current areas of nanotechnology research:
Cancer treatment - Recently, there has been a lot of research into nanoparticles that can be attracted to antibodies of a specific type of cell, for example, cancer cells. When injected into the body, these particles will only attach to cancer cells that have the specific antibody. The nanoparticles can then be heated by shining light onto the skin surface until they reach around 50 degrees. Cells can only survive in heat up to 37 degrees so any cells the particles are touching (cancer cells with the antibodies) will be destroyed. This is being trialled as a way to destroy cancer cells directly, locally and without chemotherapy. It has so far been successfully tested on mice.
Nano sheet for treating burn victims - nano sheets composed of a plastic polymer have been created that can be used to completely cover a burn injury. Previously bandages had been unable to completely block a burn from the outside environment, leading to issues with infection. The new nano sheet can be applied by covering the burn with the material and then immersing it in a solution that dries and acts as a layer, completely covering any wrinkles or difficult areas such as between fingers and in wrinkles. One layer of the coating dissolves after three days with two layers dissolving after six days. This also removes the painful process of bandage replacement.
Glucose measuring contact lenses - Diabetics often have corresponding sight problems - a common side effect. Contact lenses have been developed that measure glucose levels in tears using nanotechnology. This information can then be wirelessly transmitted to a smart device and will alert you when you need to inject with insulin.
Bio-battery - Powering our devices through our own biology. We now have nanotechnology that has enzymes capable of converting what we already produce into power. Two things trialled so far have been sweat, and glucose from blood. Last week, glucose trials were conducted with an inserted nanotube that converted glucose passing through the tube into electrons that could be used for powering electronic devices. Utilising sweat has also been tested through a patch placed on a sweat gland that converts the enzymes into energy. This technology could also be utilised for other applications such as coating a pacemaker in the enzyme material so it could power itself.
Clothing and fabric - Adding a nano layer of graphene to an elastic band enables it to be conductive. Research is now being undertaken to build this into clothing to measure vitals and pressure. This has a wide range of applications, for example for elderly, the material could be used to measure a fall. If a person hit the ground with enough pressure for it to be considered a serious fall, a connected transmitter would automatically call an ambulance or alert a medic. For infants the material could be used to monitor heart rate and breathing. The ability to monitor this could dramatically reduce the incidences of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Stain-proof fabric is also now available, and wrinkle free fabric made with nano starch. Nano silver is antibacterial and a lot of socks now contain this to prevent smell and bacteria.
Water-proofing - Hydrophobic or water resistant particles, can be layered onto anything to make it water-proof. In Japan, almost all mobile phones are water resistant. Research is also being done to compose materials that are hydrophobic, for example in airplanes to prevent ice forming on windows. According to Dickinson, she has used nanotechnology to water-proof her entire house.