Nanotechnology: Overview, Benefits and Challenges

Nanotechnology, demonstrably is one of the most exciting technology developed in the past 50 years. This atomic scale and cutting-edge field that is expected to touch all the existing technologies and impact the way things will be done, designed and manufactured in the future.

Nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new molecular organization. Gaining control over the structures and devices at atomic and molecular levels and exploiting their properties to efficiently manufacture them lies at the centre of the development of this area of science. The name doesn’t pertain to a single point of application, but addresses a plethora of fields in science.

To understand such a technology it is essential to understand the scale of operation. The word "nano" meaning dwarf refers to a reduction of size, or time, by 10-9. One nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. It is 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Evolution and History
The fundamental idea of Nanotechnology originated out of an after-dinner talk given by the Nobel Prize winning Physicist, Richard Feynman – ‘There is a plenty of room at the bottom’ which provided useful insights on the manipulation of atoms and molecules using precise tools.

The experimentation began as early as in 1960. William McLellan, a British Electrical Engineer developed a functioning 250 microgram 2000 rpm motor, which laid the path for a series of inventions, each lowering the size of structures. In 1974, the term ‘nano-technology’ was coined by Norio Taniguchi, a Japanese Scientist. An MIT physicist, Eric Drexler proposed ‘Molecular Nanotechnology’ which promoted the idea of Molecular machines and their manufacturing.

Significant advances have been possible only due to the experimental success which brought out Scanning Tunneling Microscope developed in 1981 by Greg Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer; and the Atomic Force Microscope developed in 1986 by Greg Binnig, Calvin Quate and Christopher Greber.

The discovery of Fullerenes in 1985 by Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley, and Robert Curl, laid the foundations for Carbon Nanotube Technology, which exhibited distinct chemical and physical properties. This opened the door for the development of Nanodevices and the eventual commercialization. In 1997, Zyvex was the first company founded to develop nanotechnology based products. Subsequently, a lot of developments in the nano mechanical devices hinted at the possibility of possible use in laboratory applications. Though, the actual commercialization seems to be a decade away

Key areas of Usage
Nanotechnology is entering all aspects of science and technology including aerospace, agriculture, bioengineering, biology, energy, the environment, materials, manufacturing, medicine, military science and technology. Some of the more important fields of science act as leverage to other fields. Those fields are described below:

  1. Micro and Macro Systems: Altering the design of the structure of materials in the nanoscale range, gives us the ability to modify selected properties at macro and micro scales. This would include, for example, production of polymers or composites with desirable properties which nature and existing technologies are incapable of producing. 
  2. Biotechnology: Biotechnology, holds the key to a plethora of problems that have been plaguing the humans. It is anticipated that Biotechnology will revolutionize healthcare through the breakthroughs in nanomedicine. Also Cancer treatment can be made possible by deploying nano-robots and nano sensors in the bloodstream of affected patients which can identify and destroy the cancerous growth. 
  3. Nanoelectronics and Nanolithography: Photolithography is the one of the crucial aspect of design in the microelectronics industry, which deals with the development of patterns on a micro scale. Nanotechnology (nanoelectronics and nanolithography) gives us the power of manipulating material properties on a scale that will revolutionize material and electronics design. 
  4. Space Exploration and Theoretical Physics: Nanotechnology is expected to solve the problems of Extra Terrestrial life and other mysteries of Space. Robotics on a nanoscale that power spacecrafts, will drastically reduce the payload which will ensure that light weight probes can be effectively deployed to explore different galaxies and stars. 
  5. Computing: Computers will become the fulcrum of development for other major fields of science. There will be an extraordinary reduction in the size of computers. The current supercomputers will shrink and the networking technologies will dwarf the present gigabit ethernets, with a simultaneous unprecedented fall in power consumption. Machine-Human interaction will change drastically. 
  6. Healthcare: Nanotechnology is positively impacting healthcare value chain. It is already contributing in the areas of diagnostics, drug formulation / Nanomedicine, drug delivery and wound care.  

Nanotech Benefits

Nanotech has large number of benefits based on the industry it is applied. Some of the key benefits are:

  1. Fabrication of new materials which are much lighter, harder and resistant to many forms of corrosion, can replace many traditional physical and structural components.
  2. Early detection of diseases through continuous monitoring of blood cells and other vital organs can increase the life expectancy of humans. This will replace the prevalent traditional medicine and treatment procedures.
  3. Reduced size of electronic components most importantly memory, RAM and processors will improve the storage and processing power, ushering in an era of Exabyte computational power.
  4. The space exploration will give us useful insights that can have great implications in Theoretical and Experimental Physics, making way for new developments that can fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe.
  5. Nano-engineered computer networks can unleash the power of ubiquitous computing providing real time computation of data for effective decision making in weather prediction, mineral exploration, disaster management and armed conflicts.
  6. Robots and Manipulators deployed in the field of Nuclear Industry with such computational ability can reduce the contact of human beings with such materials.
  7. The power saved due to the reduced consumption of many electronic devices can be diverted to other purposes. 

Nanotech: Key challenges

While nanotech holds lot of promise, there are some challenges this industry face. They include:

  1. The theory to application development cycle is very costly and requires very precise tools.
  2. Financial costs associated with laboratory to commercial deployment are too large even for many established organizations to bear.
  3. Public dissent over invasive technologies in the areas of Biotechnology and Nanomedicine.
  4. Cost and technological knowhow barriers to entry for new players.
  5. Need for a paradigm shift in the educational processes, for rapid development of technical knowhow in academics.
  6. Barriers to adoption – large inequity in the present day devices and the nanotechnology products of the future.