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New Nano-Technology Trends on the Rise in 2016

By Jordan Hicks on 2016-11-07

Brief intro to nanotechnology followed by an update on current findings in the nanotechnology field.


If you are at all interested in technology, sciences, or whatever the “hot IT thing” is at the time, then you probably know the term nanotechnology, but do you actually know what that refers to? The term was originally coined by Tokyo Science University Professor Norio Taniguchi in a 1974 discussion to describe precision manufacturing of materials with nanometer tolerances. Later, Drexler used a related term in his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) to describe what would become known as molecular nanotechnology. Nanotechnology broadly refers to a field of applied sciences and technology whose intent is the control of matter at the molecular level. Specifically at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometers (smaller than 1 micrometer) and the fabrications of robotic devices within that range. For scale, a single virus particle is roughly 100 nanometers in width, and a single human hair is usually about 60-80,000 nanometers wide. While this scale is so small as to be difficult to imagine for those not directly involved in the micro-focused fields, the concept of the use of such devices at that scale can be even more varied.

In recent years, nanotechnology has been related to and used in the fields of health and agriculture. In the health fields, nanocarriers have been used to deliver chemotherapy drugs to only cancerous cells, avoiding damage to healthy cells. Likewise, research is being conducted intending to use nanoparticles to act as an early warning system within the body, capable of raising an alarm should a disease be detected, effectually allowing for earlier treatment of deadly diseases. Agriculture has found a recent interest in nanotech. With an expected population growth of 1.13 percent per year resulting in more than 90 billion people in the world by 2050, most of which will be in underdeveloped countries, the demand for healthy crops and livestock productivity is higher than ever before (Population Reference Bureau). Nanotech has found a home in the field of nanoagriculture, offering “potential to protect plants, monitor plant growth, detect plant and animal diseases, increase global food production, enhance food quality, and reduce waste” (Nanotechnology in Agri-Food Production). In addition, scientists are searching for ways to apply nanotech to resolve the clean water issues found in those same less developed nations, where lack of access to clean drinking water poses the dire risk of death from diarrheal disease, intestinal parasites, and schistosomiasis infection.

Nanotechnology has crossed two fields, pairing tech with agriculture in the study of plant nanobionics. Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs professor of chemical engineering at MIT, described the goal of plant nanobionics as intending to introduce “nanoparticles into the plant to give it non-native functions.” His recent study with the spinach plant involved embedding the leaves with carbon nanotubes, transforming the plant into a sensor capable of detecting explosives, and wirelessly transmitting that information to a handheld device similar to a smartphone. The sensors do not directly detect explosives, rather they are designed to detect nitroaromatics commonly used in the production of landlines and explosives. When the plant imbibes water from the local environment, it detects the chemicals and emits a fluorescent signal which can be read with an infrared camera attached to a small computer. The computer transmits a signal to the user, notifying them of the threat. Strano finds this to be a novel demonstration of the ability to overcome the plant/human communication barrier, and believes in the near future similar technology will be developed to warn of pollutants, droughts, and similar such environmental conditions.

Via our scientists, we continue to learn from our environment and develop or reverse engineer in some cases, technologies which organic entities have created naturally. Such a case comes in the form of the recent discovery, that midwater ocean creatures use nanotech for camouflage themselves. Midwater refers to an area in the ocean also known as the twilight zone, where there is nowhere to hide from predators. Creatures in this region have developed camouflage to hide from upward-looking predators in the form of translucent bodies which should make them harder to spot. These crustaceans also face predators with bioluminescent abilities whose roaming “search lights” should cause an effect similar to shining a light against a window pane. However, scientists from Duke University in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution have recently released a study in which they found these hyperiid amphipods have a coating of apparently living bacteria. This bacteria displays as a  sheet of uniform beads which dampen the reflection of light by up to 250-fold. The spheres range in size from 50 to 300 nanometers in diameter depending on the species, where 110 nanometers results in the optimal 250-fold reflection reduction. Study leader Laura Bagge, a Ph.D. candidate, believes the spheres may be a form of symbiotic bacteria which varies in relationship between species of crustacean; she has already begun a sequencing study the determine in certainty if this is the case. Research zoologist Karen Osborn of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History states that it would not be difficult to imagine the natural selection which would lead to such an arrangement for the bacteria to develop into the correct size to disguise their host. This coating, potential bacteria though it may be, falls into the parameters of how we define nanotechnology.

As researchers continue to push the boundaries of application and our understanding of nanotechnology, we are sure to see great things from this varied field. Just in those fields discussed above, fascinating advances in agriculture, health, and bionics promises to provide an increase in healthy foods and water resources throughout the world, a safer detection system for war-torn nations, and potential technology for disguise and greater understanding of symbiotic pairings. Nanotechnology has countless potential applications, limited only by the imagination of the scientist and their own capabilities. Today, nanotechnology is one of the most cutting-edge areas of research and scientific study, primed to significantly impact the world at large.

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