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Throwback Thursday: The History of Nanotechnology

Sometimes, the best things come in the smallest packages, so the saying goes. Today’s Throwback Thursday is going to prove this statement true by shining a light on nanotechnology. Although nanotechnology has a small history, spanning a little way back on humanity’s timeline (puns intended), it’s still had a major impact. Got a little time? We’ll stop with the puns. Let’s learn more… 

So what is nanotechnology? Simply put, it involves the understanding and control of matter on a nanometre scale. The nanoscale deals with dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometres. To put nanometres into context, a strand of human hair is around 80,000 to 100,000 nanometres (nm) wide. According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, nanotechnology isn’t microscopy. They say, “Nanotechnology is not simply working at ever smaller dimensions. Rather, working at the nanoscale enables scientists to utilise the unique physical, chemical, mechanical and optical properties of materials naturally occurring at that scale.” 

The father of nanotechnology is considered to be American physicist Richard Feynman. He introduced the concept in 1959, during his talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”. He didn’t use the term ‘nanotechnology’ per se, but he did describe a process where scientists could manipulate and control atoms and molecules.

Nanotech only really hit its stride in 1981, when scientists Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer invented a scanning tunnelling microscope to view and then manipulate individual atoms. They went on to win the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. By the end of the 20th century, we saw more and more investment in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Carbon Nanotubes were discovered during the 1990s, which was a major breakthrough in the field. The early 2000s saw the start of the nanomaterial boom; from sports equipment to digital cameras, nanomaterials were being used everywhere. 

Nanotechnology products have revolutionised the world around us, improving the design of items such as light bulbs, computer and tech screens, fuels and even paints. Nanotech is involved in the development of alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind power. It could even be the solution to bringing access to clean water to the whole world. Nanomaterials can strip water of toxic metals and organic molecules as well as assist in oil spill clean-ups, potentially making it the key to clean drinking water for everyone.

Nanotechnology in medicine, or nanomedicine, can help make treatments more personalised, cheaper, safer and easier. For example, Silver nanoparticles incorporated into bandages can kill harmful microbes; this is especially helpful when used to treat burns. Researchers are currently developing ways to deliver medications directly to specific cells. This could be especially important for the treatment of cancer, as chemotherapy and radiation can damage healthy tissue whilst treating diseased tissue. 

Applications of nanotechnology have the potential to be endless. Concerns focused on nanopollution and nanotoxicology are on the radar of researchers, yet with the development of nanoscale materials and technology comes research into adverse side effects. Another concern is the price of nanotech. As an expensive area of research, many social scientists are concerned that underdeveloped countries will fall further behind without the funds to develop a nanotechnology industry. 

To chat more about nanotechnology or what goes into making nanoscale materials, get in touch with a member of the Goodfellow team today.