What is Nanotechnology and why is It Important?

Some would call nanotechnology an evolution of science. Some would call it an outgrowth of surface science. Yet nanotechnology is both of those things, and so much more. In the middle ages, philosophers and alchemists attempted to manipulate materials in order to transform one material into another. The most common example of this is lead into gold, a problem which has been very well documented in both the notes of alchemists at the time, as well as in popular media.

Alchemy, for all of its limitations, and all of the mystique and magic attached to it (which while interesting, served absolutely no purpose on a scientific level) allowed mankind to begin the understanding of fundamentals of how the world is comprised, and gave birth, eventually, to chemistry – which is the study of elements and how they change according to different circumstances.

Chemistry, essentially, gave us the understanding that everything- whether solid, liquid, gas, man-made, naturally occurring, composite or single material, living or not living materials, are made out of atoms. The only difference between a sheet of metal and a sheet of plastic is arrangement of these atoms. This, of course, gave rise to the question of whether or not these atoms could be rearranged in order to “transform” an object into another, in the manner of old alchemy experiments in order to turn lead into gold – though of course the lead into gold comparison is something which was never possible. Gold in itself is a basic element, and the atoms within basic elements are impossible to break down even further.

Whereas it must be mentioned that such a simplistic transformation is not something that is scientifically possible (literally ‘turning’ one material into another is not the goal- it is taking other materials properties) nanotechnology has relevance as a science which will change the world in years to come because of the application of altering properties of materials. An example of which is nanotubes.

NASA have shown their success with nanotube experiments, which have resulted in materials which are hundreds of times stronger than steel, but at a comparable weight to aluminium. Essentially, this material was devised by manipulating the molecules of the common material graphite – and not changing them, but manipulating them into tube-like arrangements rather than a flat layer. The gaps between the molecules allow for the weight reduction, but the tube-like arrangement is a concept similar to standing on a chicken egg while it is placed directly upright. It will not break- as physics will not allow it to.

This material is used in space stations, rockets, robotics, and so much more – and there is even more application in other fields of industry.

The applications of such are only limited by the amount of known materials there are in the world- and there has been success with using protein casings from varying (harmless) viruses such as coughs and colds in order to deliver drugs to treat cancer as the virus runs its course through the body without the need of harmful chemo or radiotherapy.

All in all, the field of nanotechnology is an exciting one, and something which will almost certainly change our world as we know it. There are a number of organizations both scientific and academic in North Wales and beyond which are dedicated to exploring how exactly nanotechnology can help.

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