Present and future applications of nanotechnology

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Nanotechnology is expected to have a significant impact on just about every sector of the economy through the use of nanostructured materials in medicine, the production of clean energy and reduction in energy consumption, the creation of nanoscopic sensors, new materials for optics and photonics, and ultra small magnets, the development of new techniques for the fabrication of large-scale structures, the replacement of silicon based technology for electronics and computing, and the enhancement of consumer products. A few of the many applications will be highlighted within; for a more thorough review the reader is directed to two published surveys of nanotechnology (Wilson et al, 2002; Ratner and Ratner, 2003).

Consumer products

While much of nanotechnology's potential has yet to be realized, products that incorporate nanomaterials are already in the marketplace. The Wilson Double CoreTM tennis ball, the official ball of the Davis Cup tournament, has clay nanoparticles embedded in the polymer lining of its inner wall, which slows the escape of air from the ball making it last twice as long. Nano-CareTM fabrics, sold in Eddie Bauer chinos and other clothing since November 2001, incorporate 'nano-whiskers' into the fabric to make it stain resistant to water-based liquids such as coffee and wine. PPG Industries produces SunCleanTM self cleaning glass, which harnesses the sun's energy to break down dirt and spreads water smoothly over the surface to rinse the dirt away without beading or streaking. Various sunscreens (Wild Child, Wet Dreams and Bare Zone) incorporate ZinClearTM, a transparent suspension of nanoscopic zinc oxide particles that are too small to scatter visible light as do products containing microscopic particles. Nanotechnology has added value to these products through a variety of properties - impermeability to gas, water repellency and transparency - that manifest only or optimally at the nanoscale.

Military applications

Nanotechnology would probably not be worth US$847 million of federal funding if it only made incremental improvements in consumer products. Many of the high impact applications are in the areas of defence/national security, medicine and energy. In FY 2003, the Department of Defense (DOD) surpassed all other Federal agencies with a US$243 million investment in nanotechnology research and development (FY 2003 Budget Request).3 DOD is interested in using nanotechnology to advance both offensive and defensive military objectives. DOD's primary areas of interest are information acquisition, processing, storage and display (nanoelectronics); materials performance and affordability (nanomaterials); and chemical and biological warfare defence (nanosensors). The integration of several of these functionalities into a single technology is the ultimate goal of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, an interdepartmental research centre established in 2002 by the US Army at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its website says:

Imagine a bullet proof jumpsuit, no thicker than spandex that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and maybe even lends superhuman abilities. It's a long range vision for how technology can make soldiers less vulnerable to enemy and environmental threats.

The ultimate objective of this five-year, US$50 million effort is to create a battle-suit that better protects the soldier in the battlefield.

Medical applications

No one has yet invented a little machine that will swim through your body and mechanically strip away plaque from your inner arterial walls; nonetheless, nanotechnology is poised to have an enormous impact on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Recall that one of the Grand Challenges of the NNI is the ability to detect cancerous tumours that are only a few cells in size. Medical imaging could be vastly improved by using nanoparticle-based materials to enhance the optical contrast between healthy tissue and diseased tissue. Diabetes treatment could be improved by injecting a nanoparticle into the blood that automatically delivered a dose of insulin upon sensing an imbalance in blood glucose level. Cancer may be treated someday soon with an injection of nanoparticles that latch onto cancerous tissue and cook it to death upon external application of a light source that poses no threat to healthy tissue.

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