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Big Picture on Nanoscience

Big Picture on Nanoscience



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Published by Wellcome Trust
Dealing with things smaller than 100 nanometres (for comparison, a human hair is 80 000 nm wide), nanotechnologies are fast becoming the 'next big thing' (only not so big at all). Yet while nano-enthusiasts say they are the future, nano-sceptics are concerned about potential dangers.

From nano-hype to nano-nonsense, this issue in the 'Big Picture' series sifts sense from speculation. What are nanotechnologies and what might they do for us? What (if anything) do we need to worry about? How are potential benefits weighed against possible downsides? What role should the public play in the process of nano development?
Dealing with things smaller than 100 nanometres (for comparison, a human hair is 80 000 nm wide), nanotechnologies are fast becoming the 'next big thing' (only not so big at all). Yet while nano-enthusiasts say they are the future, nano-sceptics are concerned about potential dangers.

From nano-hype to nano-nonsense, this issue in the 'Big Picture' series sifts sense from speculation. What are nanotechnologies and what might they do for us? What (if anything) do we need to worry about? How are potential benefits weighed against possible downsides? What role should the public play in the process of nano development?

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Published by: Wellcome Trust on Jun 29, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs


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From nano-hype to nano-nonsense, this issue in the
Big Picture 
series sifts sensefrom speculation.
What arenanotechnologies and what mightthey do for us? What (if anything)do we need to worry about?More broadly, though, it looksat how new technologies movefrom the lab to the high street andhospital,
how potential benefitsare weighed against possibledownsides, and what role thepublic should play in the process
Small is beautiful.
Nanotechnologies are fastbecoming the ‘next big thing’(only not big at all).
Why life is very different at small scales
How nanotechnologies may affect our lives
The possible drawbacks of nanotechnologies
Weighing up the risks and rewards
Negotiating the path between lab andpractical applications
Real voices: Mark Welland and Doug Parr
What does the future hold for four nano-products?
The big picture
JUNE 2005
Dealing with things smaller than100 nanometres (for comparison,a human hair is 80000 nm wide),
nanotechnologies are poised toprovide fantastically light andstrong materials
and revolutionisemedicine. They are the future, saythe nano-enthusiasts.Hang on, say nano-sceptics,didn’t you say the same thingabout nuclear power, gene therapyand genetically modified animals?Where’s the jetpack and flyingcar you promised? Where are theflocks of sheep making life-savingmedicines in their milk?
How do weknow nanoparticles aren’t goingto trigger the next CJD?
 And whatif self-replicating nanobots turneverything into grey goo?
Nanobot:Fact orfantasy?
Find outon page 5.
How isnanotechnologyhelping Australianlifeguards?
See page 5.
Newspix/Jody D’arcy 
Germanscientists havecreated ananoparticle-containingpolymer thatboth repels andkills bacteria.
The buzz about nanotechnologies in the media reflects both thepossibilities and the uncertainties of this cutting-edge area of science.
Education editor:
Hannah Russell
Education adviser:
Peter Finegold
Ian Jones
Penny Bailey, Giles Newton,Jon Turney
Glen McBeth
Advisory board:
Nan Davies, DeanMadden,Rachel Quinn, Michael Reiss, John Ryan,Mark Welland, Bryn Williams-Jones
 All images, unless otherwise indicated, are fromthe Wellcome Trust’s Medical Photographic Library. The Wellcome Trust is an independentbiomedicalresearch funding charity (registered charity no. 210183). The Trust’s mission is to foster and promote researchwith the aim of improving human and animal health.Reflecting the profound impact today’sresearch willhave on society, the Wellcome Trust also seeks to raiseawareness of the medical, ethical and social implicationsof research and promote dialogue between scientists,the public and policy makers.
© The Trustee of the Wellcome Trust, London, 2005. All rights reserved. Except as set out below, no partof this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrievalsystem, or transmitted, in any form or by an means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permissionof the Wellcome Trust.The Wellcome Trust consents to photocopies of all or part of this publicationbeing made by educational  institutions for non-profit, educational classroom use provided that the above copyright notice and any credits attaching to images or text featured in the photocopy appear clearly in such a photocopy.
The potential of nanotechnology isapparently endless
: we are promisedeverything from the mundane (betterpaints, self-cleaning windows) to thebizarre (tiny submarines that will glidethrough our veins destroying bacteria). As a result, nanoscience andtechnologies are attractingconsiderable
fromgovernments and industry hopingto drive economic development.So what exactly is nanoscience? And why the excitement? In a nutshell,nanoscience is the science of theextremely tiny. Nano (from the Greekfor ‘dwarf’) is the prefix for units of 10
. So one nanometre is a billionthof a metre or a millionth of a millimetre. The nano size range is usually definedas smaller than 100 nm. But whyis nanoscience so special? The keypoint is that,
at nanoscales, materialshavestrikingly different properties
(see box, right).Nanoscience is concerned withunderstanding these effects;
nanotechnologies aim to exploitthem to create novel structures,devices and systems
for a varietyof different industries. Because therange of applications is so diverse, it’shelpful to think of 
in the plural.
Nanosystems in biology
Ironically, the most complex andhighly functional nanoscale materialsand machines have already beeninvented – by
. Proteins andother naturally occurring moleculesregulate and control biologicalsystems with incredible precision.Ultrastrong or other clever materialsare commonplace – frommussel glue, through spider’s silk,to water-repelling lotus leaves.
Many nanotechnologists are drawinginspiration from biology
to createnew synthetic materials and devices.
So why the worry?
Some people suggest that the
unusual properties that make thenano-world so exciting also requireus to proceed with caution.
Because they act so differently,nanomaterials cannot be thought of as the same substance, only smaller. Their properties, and their effectson people or the environment,may be quite different from thoseof their macro-forms.
...an atom would be thesize of a grain of salt......a virus would beas big as a person......a red blood cellwould be the sizeof a football pitch......a flea wouldbe the sizeof Brighton......a hair would be aswide as a river......a doughnut would bethe size of the UK...
JUNE 2005
If you dive into a swimming pool, yourinertia will keep you moving throughthe water for several metres. If you werenano-sized, however, the water wouldbe like treacle – its viscosity would soonbring you to a gloopy halt.Nanoscale objects show markedlydifferent behaviour to large objects.For a nanoparticle in a swimming pool,
is negligible and
dominates. The water molecules wouldalso bombard the particle because of
Brownian motion
 – throwing it aroundlike an aeroplane in constant turbulence.At nanoscales, forces that hold surfacestogether become very strong. For a ‘nanobot’(see page 5), this could be a bad thing –it would tend to stick to the first surface itmet. For
, this is extremely useful:nano-forces created by the extremely finehair on their feet allow them to walk on
We’ve used nanotechnologiesfor centuries – we just neverknew it.
Some people talk about a nano-technology revolution as if this werethe start of something radically new.Others point out that
nanotechnologies have not yetproduced any new products
merely enhanced existing productssuch as tennis racquets andtrousers. Also, nanotech has beenused for decades without a greatdeal of excitement. In this sense,nanotechnology is a ‘
of older science, and its influence isevolutionary rather than revolutionary.In the longer term, though, nano-technologies do have the
potentialto affect manufacturing processesacross a wide range of industries
. This will lead not just to ‘the samebut better’ but to
genuinely newproducts
Old nano
Nanoparticles are not new: theyhave existed widely in the naturalworld, for millions of years, createdby living things or volcanic activity.
Nano-effects are astonishinglycommon in nature
– from non-reflective moths’ eyes to extraordinarilyefficient nano-lenses in crystallinesponges. The enamel of our teethis constructed, in part, by use of natural nanotechnology.Indeed,
people have exploitedthe properties of nanoparticlesfor centuries
. Gold and silvernanoparticles are responsible forsome coloured pigments, used in
stained glass
sincethe 10th century (depending ontheir size, gold particles can appearred, blue or gold).
Computer chips
have been madeusing nanotechnologies for the last20 years, and chemists have beenmaking
– large moleculesmade up of nanoscale subunits –for decades.
New nano
 Today, there are two approachesto manufacturing nanomaterials:
’ and ‘
In the ‘bottom-up’ approach,structures are built up atom byatom
using sophisticated toolssuch as the scanning tunnellingmicroscope or atomic forcemicroscope. You can find out moreabout these technologies on the
website. These can pick up,slide or drag atoms or moleculesaround to build simple nanostructures.Molecules can also be assembledby
chemical synthesis
– or by
, whereby atomsand molecules arrange themselvesinto ordered structures.
In ‘top-down’ approaches, traditionalengineering techniques such asmachining and etching are usedat very small scales
. Productstherefore tend to be refinements of existing products, such as electronicchips with ever more componentscrammed onto them.
 Are nanotechnologies really that new?
LEFT: This coral-grazing parrotfish has particularlystrong,durable teeth made up of bundles of nanofibres.RIGHT: Tennis balls made of nano-based materials remainpressurised for longer.
ceilings and even to hang upsidedown from flat sheets of glass.Another difference is that the
ratio ofsurface area to volume increases
(in a 30 nm particle, 5 per cent of the atomsare on its surface; in a 3 nm particle, halfare). The atoms on the surface tend to bemore reactive than those at the centre, sonanoparticle-based materials can be highlyreactive (good for
or have unusualproperties (nano-gold melts at much lowertemperatures than the solid metal).At nanoscales, the behaviour of individualatoms and electrons becomes important,and interesting
quantum effects
come intoplay. These fundamentally alter the optical,electrical and magnetic behaviour ofmaterials. You can find out more about thepeculiar quantum world in
Big Picture 
...if a nanoparticlewas the sizeof a football
...a carbon C60 moleculewould be the size of a pea......a chicken would beas big as the Earth......how big would you be?Find out at our interactive nanoconverterat www.wellcome.ac.uk/bigpicture/nano...the London Eyewould just about fitbetween the Earthand the Moon.

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