What is Nanotechnology and How Does it Work?

Life at the nano-scale is unimaginably small; 1 million nanometers make up 1 millimeter. Nanotechnology usually deals with anything measuring between 1 and 100 nm. Larger than that, becomes the micro-scale, while anything smaller than that is the atomic scale.

To put things into perspective, a human hair’s thickness is typically between 60 and 120 micrometers, and micrometer is 1000 nanometers. This means that you need to cut the thinnest strand of hair anyone can ever find at least 60,000 times to make a strand one nanometer wide.

Why is nanotechnology special?

What makes working at the nano-scale incredibly exciting is how much quantum mechanics influence it. Quantum mechanics seem to slightly bend the rules of classical physics when it comes to nanotechnology in some very interesting ways.

For example, you can’t walk to a solid wall and casually teleport to the other side in today’s world (you have to find another way to board the Hogwarts Express sorry). In the nano-scale however, it’s a fairly well known feat called “electron tunneling”. Substances that are electrical insulators, can actually become semiconductors at the nano-scale, melting points of materials can change, along with a list of new mind blowing things you can do that grows every day.

Adding to the badassery of nanotechnology, is the fact that it is becoming an interdisciplinary field, with new applications introduced daily in biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, and multiple fields of engineering.

What can we do with nanotechnology?

Currently there are two main fields of specific interests when it comes to nanotechnology, they are:

Nanowires, which are basically wires with diameters as small as 1 nm that scientists hope to use to build tiny transistors for computer chips that will make computing faster, smarter, and more efficient.

Carbon nanotubes, which are nano-size cylinders of carbon atoms that are rolled into tubes.

What’s interesting is that the properties of the carbon nanotubes are different according to the way you roll up the tubes. With the right alignment for example, you can make a nanotube that is 100 times stronger than steel, and 6 times lighter. Think of the possibilities this can make for many industries like construction, cars, planes, and machinery. A specific organization of carbon nano-tubes has even been used to develop what may be a real invisibility cloak (which can perhaps make your plans to sneak into Hogwarts easier?).

What can we do with nanotechnology “today”?

All this is good for future research and concept plans, but how can we impatiently benefit from nanotechnology right now? Well you’d be surprised at how many products are already using nanotechnology, and chances are you have actually already used something that has exploited nanotechnology. Among these products are:

Sunscreen

Ever notice how sunscreens used to give you an embarrassing white mask whenever you put it on your face, but lately that white dash is suddenly becoming less and less common? Well this is actually thanks to nanotechnology. You see, many sunscreens now contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide. In the paste however, they used formulas of larger particles which gave them their whitish color, smaller particles are less visible.

Self-cleaning Glass

Nanoparticles can be used on glass to alter its properties making it photocatalytic and hydrophilic. Photocatalytic means when light hits the glass, the nanoparticles become energized and begin to break down and loosen organic molecules (like dirt). Hydrophilic on the other hand, means that when water makes contact with the glass, it spreads evenly across the surface, which helps wash the glass clean.

Better Clothing

Using a similar approach to the self-cleaning glass, scientists are now coating fabrics with a thin layer of zinc oxide nanoparticles which offer better protection from UV radiation, as well as making the clothes repel water and other materials, hence making them stain-resistant. Nanotechnology is also helping create wrinkle-free fabrics.

Scratch-resistant Coatings

Adding aluminum silicate nanoparticles to scratch-resistant polymer coatings made the coatings more effective, increasing resistance to chipping and scratching. Scratch-resistant coatings are common on everything from cars to eyeglass lenses.

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