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Big Things from Small Particles

Nanotechnology is a branch of science and technology focused on the study and application of tiny particles and structures. This interdisciplinary field combines many areas of study, such as physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, engineering, and computer science.

One example of nanotechnology at work is Tethys, the device developed by inventor and Time Magazine’s first Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao. Tethys uses carbon nanotubes, fine mesh cylinders composed of single carbon atoms, to detect lead in drinking water. Rao, stunned by Flint Michigan’s tragic experience, resolved to act. She learned that over 5300 water systems in the US violate federal guidelines on lead and copper content, according to CNN. She invented Tethys to give people a quick, easy, low-cost way to monitor their own drinking water for lead. The nanotubes in her sensor trap any lead in water samples, which alters the electrical conductivity of the nanotubes, and registers on a smartphone app she developed. This clever application of just one type of nanomaterial shows the huge potential of this technology.

Nanotechnology studies and manipulates matter on the atomic and molecular level with dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is just one billionth of a meter. For comparison, just one human hair is around 80,000 to 100,000 nm wide.

At this scale, matter is not just smaller, but different. Materials may reveal surprising properties. By increasing the surface area of a material, nanotechnology may allow more atoms to interact with other materials. Because of their larger surface area, nanometer-scale materials are stronger, more durable, and more conductive than their larger-scale counterparts. The color of a material can also change as the smaller particle size reflects light differently. The element gold may appear dark red or purple, while silver may look yellowish or amber-colored. “Nanotechnology is not simply working at ever smaller dimensions,” according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative. “Rather, working at the nanoscale enables scientists to use the unique physical, chemical, mechanical, and optical properties of materials that naturally occur at that scale.”

Engineers now apply nanotechnology in designing a wide range of devices to improve our lives. In healthcare, nanotechnology can create smaller and more efficient medical diagnostic devices and treatments, such as drug delivery systems. Nanotechnology enables sensors that detect tiny changes in the body, such as in glucose levels, to alert patients and caretakers of potential abnormalities. In energy, nanotechnology powers more efficient and stronger batteries, and to capture and store energy more effectively. In computing and microelectronics, nanotechnology makes possible smaller, faster, and more powerful computer chips, which could revolutionize computing. In materials science, nanotechnology aids in developing new composite materials, along with cheaper and more efficient water filters and solar cells.

Other examples of nanotechnology-based products include medical implants, advanced energy production materials, advanced composites, and even nanobots. In addition, nanotechnology is being used to develop cheaper and more efficient water filters and solar cells using new and improved nanotechnology-based materials. Nanotechnology also vastly expands our capabilities to solve environmental issues. Duke University’s DraBot, highlighted last week, is just one early example. This emerging technology of the very, very small has enormous potential to revolutionize many industries and create new markets, while also improving existing products and processes.

Read more about Gitanjali Rao and her inventions in my new book Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions.

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