Nanoscience and -technology are still in their infant years, and there are still a lot of things we don’t know. But based on what we do know, there are a lot of promises of nanobased technologies in the future. We have compiled a list of ten extremely exciting areas where nanotechnology can make a huge impact. Some of the technologies listed still have a long way to go before being fully realized, while others have already been developed and prototyped.
What promise of nanotechnology do you think is the coolest and most exciting? Vote on your favourite nanotechnology below.
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Thought your Ivy Bridge-based processor is fast? Think again. The future of computing lies with quantum computing, a computer system that uses so-called qbits (quantum bits) instead of regular bits as we are used to. Whereas we are used to have data (binary ones and zeroes) represented as transistors turned on and off, the qbits are represented with an atom’s spin (spin of a particle, atom or molecule is a quantum effect, and is essentially given as either up or down). By applying magnetic fields, one can change this spin from one to another. See the similarity?
This however, is A LOT faster than our conventional way of storing data, and has the potential to make your shiny new MacBook Pro resemble an abacus of the olden days.
The cells of our nervous system (the ones found in our spinal cords and brains) can not regenerate themselves once matured. This very often means that people who damage their nervous system in an accident, end up paralyzed with no hope of regaining their ability to feel or walk again.
But fret not! Some researchers have found a gel that spurs the regeneration of these cells. It works by filling the space between existing cells, and encouraging new cells to grow. This technology can potentially eliminate paralysis and brain damage altogether. There have also been developed a biodegradable nanosphere that transports cells into wounds, to speed up regeneration of tissue.
A lot of the drugs we use to treat illnesses are effective in countering the effects of the bacteria or other troublemakers, but since they are floating through your bloodstream, they may affect other parts of your body as well, and have the potential to give unwanted, sometimes very nasty side effects. Nanotechnology promises a way to deliver a drug to the affected area, and only to that particular place. This can happen because the drug can be encapsulated in nanostructures that are designed to attach themselves to a particular bacteria or virus, and dissolve, thus releasing the medicine. And you would only need a fraction of the medicine! Amazing, huh?
You’re on your way home. It’s a long walk, but at least you have your cellphone so you can listen to music. Oh wait, it’s out of battery! Wouldn’t it be great if your cellphone, and other devices for that matter, could recharge itself while walking? Enter energy harvesting.
With energy harvesting, you have a lot of small systems that can harvest for example solar or thermal energy, essentially taking advantage of otherwise wasted energy. With nanotechnology, such systems can be developed to be so small and flexible so that it can be embedded in clothing, and with piezoelectric nanocrystals, you could even harvest energy from the movement in your clothes. So in reality you are a walking power source for your mobile devices.
One promise of nanotechnology, is the development of new types of material with superior properties to the materials we have today. We already have carbon-reinforced materials, but imagine a plane built entirely out of superlight, superstrong nanomaterials. This will increase fuel efficiency, and decrease the carbon footprint of transport.
You could also imagine yourself standing outside, waiting for a bus, on a rainy fall day. How wonderful wouldn’t it be if your clothes were superhydrophobic, so that your jacket would repel ALL water, keeping you completely dry? Or a car with a paintjob that prevents scratches?
While the Western world pretty much have an infinite access to fresh water, the situation is quite different in many countries, among them African countries. With nanotechnology, you could use a sheet of graphene to filter water from salt and other unwanted substances. This is possible due to the size of the rings in which the carbon atoms are arranged in graphene. Water molecules are small enough to pass through, salts and other molecules are not.
This could have ENORMOUS implications for the health and well being of people living in Africa and other places where the access to fresh water is scarce.
Sensors are great! They tell us all kinds of things we want to know about our environment. But what if these sensors became incredibly small, and could fit anywhere? They could fit in your bloodstream, and give you diagnostics about your health.
A concept called lab-on-a-chip could also make a great impact in the health industry. Imagine being in a foreign country, far from any modern hospitals. You’ve suddenly fallen ill to some disease. With the help of a portable medical kit, that includes chips with nanosensors, you could diagnose yourself instantly, without having to travel a long way to distant hospital.
Such nanosensors could also be applied to national security inasmuch that we could make sensors to detect biohazards or other chemical dangers before they are present in quantities that are dangerous to humans.
Granted, the size of the transistors in the state-of-the-art processors are already nanosized. Intel’s Ivy Bridge microarchitecture (more aptly named nanoarchitecture perhaps?) has memory units spaced only 22 nm from each other. However, there is still room for even more reduction in size. One atom is roughly a couple of Ångstrøm (1Å = 0.1 nm). Scientists have actually already created a one-atom transistor, consisting of only one phosphorus atom.
Researchers at our own university, The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, have successfully grown semiconductive nanowires on a sheet of graphene, instead of a regular semiconducting substrate material that usually are around 500 µm (micrometers - 1 µm = 1000 nm). Compare that to the single sheet of graphene that is only about 0.1 nm thick.
We spend a lot of energy (and money!) on heating up our houses in winter, and cooling them down in summer. In most cases, the electricity used for this purpose comes from an external source. How can nanotechnology be used to improve on this situation?
One way is to reduce the need of heating and cooling. While the walls of most modern houses are properly isolated, so that there is little heat transfer through them, the windows are still great sinners. There have of course been improvements here as well, but a lot of heat is still lost through our windows due to radiation. What if we could prevent heat from escaping our room in winter, or preventing it entrance in summer? A company called Nanoholdings have developed a film, made up of carbon nanotubes, that by applying a voltage can change how much light and heat it lets through the window. This could also potentially be used to harvest energy.
Nanotechnology can also be used to drastically improve the efficiency of solar cells. The average efficiency of today’s solar cells is around 15%. That is, it only transforms 15% of the solar energy that hits it into electric energy. The theoretical max efficiency is also under 50% for today’s technology. But if we were to infuse the material with nanoparticles and nanowires, and effectively increase the amount of different wavelengths of light that can be transformed, we can gain a max theoretical efficiency of up to 90%. That means we can almost double energy production across the same area!
We’re not supporters of war, but when our soldiers are out fighting one, we want them to be as safe as possible. Nanotechnology can help with this as well!
Remember watching one of your favourite sci-fi shows, and hoping that you would one day be able to use the cloaking technology used by one of the protagonists? Well, your dream may finally come through. It might not be available for the Average Joe, but for military purposes it can serve as a protective measure to ensure that a soldier is not detected, and can complete his or her task without engaging in combat.
A soldier could also be equipped with the aforementioned enhanced nanomaterials, so that their equipment becomes much lighter and more durable. Also embedding nanosensors in the soldiers uniform and body can give a squad better control over the individual soldiers health, and make it easier to treat wounded soldiers.