The Power of Small: Nanotechnology

Courtesy of Ricardo Decca

Courtesy of Ricardo Decca

Consider the idea of creating materials, devices, and systems on the surface of something 50,000 times finer than a single strand of human hair. Now, consider the ability to control these properties and functionalities at the nanoscale to open doors to new solutions to some of the world's leading struggles.

Though this may sound like an out of this world vision, it’s actually microscopic reality.

“In general, when the scales are reduced to a billionth of what we are used to, we enter the ‘nano’ realm. Loosely, 1 nano equals 1/1,000,000,000,” Professor Ricardo Decca, co-director of the Nanoscale Imaging Center at IUPUI, said through an email.

Through precise manufacturing and quality control it is possible to create products such as computers and motors that are only a few nanometers wide. These products are constructed by one of two ways: the ‘bottom up’ method, in which products are built from chemical reactions, or the ‘top down’ method, where a product is manufactured from larger materials that are carved away to obtain the shape and dimensions needed. In both cases, a controlled environment is crucial due to the fact that pollutants in the air have the potential to interfere with the process because pollutants are much larger than the nano.

Though the process is tedious, the rewards are revolutionary.

Scientists and engineers are hard at work studying the effects of what happens when materials are purposely manipulated at the nanoscale and how these increased properties are putting their large-scale counterparts to shame.

“Nanoscale materials are more sustainable, reduce the amount of material you’re using, reduce the cost of the product, and reduce the waste you’re generating. Better performance, better functionality,” El-Mounayri, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineer at IUPUI, said.

Studies show that nanotechnology may have immediate positive effects on renewable energy.

“You can code nanoparticles to improve the efficiency of solar cells,” El- Mounayri said. “Nanomaterial has a much higher surface to volume ratio, which in turn creates more surface area that is exposed to the sun. With more surface, comes more reactions, and the ability to absorb more energy from the sun.”

Image courtesy of Ricardo Decca

Image courtesy of Ricardo Decca

Nanoscience is also paving way for new technologies, having the ability to diagnose and treat cancer in a way that has not yet been possible. The idea is that doctors will potentially be able to use nanoparticles to detect, target, and destroy cancer cells without destroying the surrounding cells. Additionally, nanotechnology will hold the capability of earlier and more accurate diagnosis, as well as continuous tracking of a patient's treatment.

What was once thought of as science fiction can now be considered science fact, and many of these concepts may be assessable to us in the very near future.

“New science, new technology. Faster and more compact computers. Better communications. Potentially new ways to deal with sickness, better preservation of food, improvement in air quality, smaller carbon footprint…the list is quite extensive!” Professor Decca said, in regards to future possibilities.

When it comes to the dangers involving nanotechnology, Decca said, “In my view, there are two [dangers]. One is the things we still do not know about them. How toxic are they? When will nano-transistors fail? And the like. Those are the good dangers if you will. The ones we can solve with more research, an open mind.

“Then we have the misuse of a technology by say creating weapons, making new poisons. Those are political and socio-economical decisions. Much more complex than nanoscience per se in my view.”

Though only time can tell where nanotechnology may lead, it is without a doubt a revolution that holds the power to change the world on a colossal scale.