What is Nanotechnology?

Ever heard of the word NANO? Even if you aren’t a Science geek, chances are that you have come across this word in your life. Indian motoring giant TATA has produced a car with the name NANO. The word itself is derived from Latin word “nanus”, which in turn was derived from Greek word “νᾶνος”. Both of these words mean “Dwarf” or “Very small”. So how small NANO exactly is?

Well, Scientifically, NANO means One Billionth of a Unit. So a NANO Meter is One Billionth of a Meter, and a NANO Second is One Billionth of a Second and so on. Nanotechnology refers to the science which deals with matters at this scale of size (Usually 1-100 nanometers). To put that in comparison, a human hair is 80,000 – 10,000 nanometers wide, and if a common marble was the size of 1 nanometer, the whole earth would have a diameter of 1 meter!!! That’s how small Nano is. Some people think Nanotechnology means small robots (Of Nano size), who can enter your bloodstream and perform like robots inside you. This depiction is rather misleading, and has been popularized by many SCI-FI movies. While there are some self-assembling Nano structures available, nobody has produced a robot in Nano Sizes. The current holder of World’s smallest robot title is 0.2 millimeters long (about the size of a fly). That’s about 200,000 nanometers!

While they are no robots, Nanomaterial still show some remarkable and unique properties. The main reason for this is their high Surface Area-to-Volume ratio. To understand this, imagine a cube of 1 centimeter tall, 1 centimeter wide and 1 centimeter long. The volume of this cube is then 1 cm3, and the total surface area of the cube is 6 cm2 . So the Surface Area-to-Volume ratio is 6 (cm-1). Now imagine this cube being separated into cubes with 1 mm long sides. This would yield 1000 cubes. The volume would still be the same, while the surface area would be 60 cm2. (See the Image below). If the same cube is to be separated into 1 nanometer sized cubes, the resulting surface area would be 60,000,000 cm2. This high surface area makes Nano particles highly reactive. But they employ various mechanisms to stay stable under normal conditions.

Image credit - www.nano.gov

So what are the applications of Nano Science? Well, current applications range from Cancer treatment to Disinfecting Washing Machines. Nano materials are now present in consumer products like Sunscreen, Cosmetics, Food packaging and Clothing. Samsung is marketing a washing machine, which they claim to add silver Nanoparticles to clothes during washing cycles. Nanoelectronics is another frontier in Nanotechnology, with devices like personal computers getting faster and cheaper thanks to developments in Nanotechnology. However, with this increasing consumption, the adverse effects of Nanotechnology is also being studied. Some researchers are claiming that exposure to certain Nanomaterial over long periods can cause severe health issues. Another concern is that some nanomaterial (Like silver) can accumulate in nature, and can cause adverse effects on Food chains and Ecosystems. Therefore, it is wise to use Nanotechnology responsibly, rather than overexploiting it’s availability.

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