The fascinating world of very little things

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2008, 12:00am

The concept of 'smallness' has taken on a new meaning with the recent spectacular advances in the field of nanotechnology. It is startling to learn of the infinite power that can be unleashed by the science of manipulating the infinitesimally small.

Nano means 'dwarf' in Greek, and nanoscience refers to the study of molecular and atomic particles in a world that is measured in nanometres. With a nanometre measuring one-billionth of a metre, a visualisation of the physical size of a nanometre is like comparing the size of a marble to the size of the Earth.

Nanotechnology has been around for more than two decades, but real breakthroughs in its development have only happened in the past two years.

Affecting everything from the clothes we wear and the water we drink to how we treat cancer, the nanotechnology revolution, if successful, has every possibility of turning our world upside down.

Some scientists even think the changes brought about by nanotechnology will be much greater than those from the computer revolution.

What makes nanotechnology tick is the magical discovery that common materials like aluminium and plastic develop odd or even diametrically opposite properties when they are 'nanonised'. At the nanometre scale - about 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair - matter behaves in unusual ways: plastic conducts electricity and aluminium explodes.

It's like if you were to shrink an elephant and keep shrinking it until at some point it suddenly turns into a lion.

With substances behaving magically at this size, endless opportunities have been created to give us control over the material world. A multitude of industries have reaped the benefits of nanotechnology.

One of the first nanoproducts to hit the market with great fanfare is water- and stain-resistant clothing. Also known as nanopants, trousers tinkered with by nanoscientists are made of smart fabric able to block the holes through which water or staining liquid would otherwise seep.

With all kinds of nanoproducts swamping western markets, the advent of nanotechnology has proved to be a business bonanza.

These products include cosmetics, sun block, water filters, solar panels and bread and water which contain nanocapsules of nutrients.

The science has also proved to be a boon to medicine.

Nanotechnology has been proved to be hugely effective in staunching bleeding. While it takes 1.5 to 5 minutes for traditional methods like cauterisation to stem bleeding from a wound, the use of nanotreatment can drastically shorten the time to around eight seconds, minimising deaths and complications from excessive loss of blood.

The breakthroughs in the medical field have brought such rosy prospects that solutions for incurable ills like Parkinson's disease and paralysis induced by spinal cord injuries may soon be found.

For all its possible benefits critics have raised concerns over nanotechnology's potential harm to people and the environment.

Just as the computer revolution has bred privacy concerns and physical inactivity, with related social and health effects, new technologies are often fraught with risks.

Concerns have been raised over the possible harm to the human body.

Environmental advocates are worried that workers in future nanoindustries like pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies could be exposed to nanoparticles. Because of their extremely small size, nanoparticles can pass through skin and enter blood vessels, causing inflammation and other severe health hazards. Consumers using those cosmetic products would also be at risk for the same reason.

With the technology making nanoscale surveillance and eavesdropping devices possible, human rights advocates worry that civil liberties and personal privacy is in peril.

The backlash from critics has been so severe that some scientists have called for an end to the development of nanotechnology until such time as stringent safeguards and testing systems are set up.