Scientists working in nanotechnology were pretty happy to see the iPod nano, a portable music player well-known to every parent who tried to purchase one for their kids during the holidays.
A small nanotube, about 20 to 30 nanometers in diameter, hangs from the tip of an atomic force microscope. (Photo by Purdue University School of Chemical Engineering)
Was it because the scientists were impressed by the novel use of nanomaterials and nanoprocesses behind the popular digital media player? No—not there. The scientists just liked the idea that the word “nano” was deemed hip and popular, says Ron Turco, a Purdue University professor of agronomy and one of the principal investigators on a multimillion-dollar nanotechnology research program.
It's those kinds of associations that help make nanotechnology—a science that even some scientists find difficult to understand—familiar. And proponents hope familiarity breeds affection.
Turco, who is one of those proponents, believes a wide range of educational efforts and public, transparent assessment of risks and benefits will help citizens and policymakers reach the right decisions on harnessing nanotechnology's potential.
“We want to make sure that key decisions about nanotechnology and the environment are based on rigorous scientific investigation,” Turco says. “There's a lot of science fiction out there.”
Nanotechnology is an emerging science combining engineering and chemistry to create materials, structures, devices and systems at the near-atomic level. These structures are built atom by atom or molecule by molecule instead of by the more conventional approach of sculpting parts from pre-existing materials.
Nanotechnology takes its name from the unit of length known as the “nanometer.” A nanometer is roughly equivalent to 10 atoms placed side by side, or one-billionth of a meter. A nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
Turco and other scientists on the Purdue Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team are trying to find out what happens when these tiny, many-sided structures enter the environment. “This is one of the first major studies solely interested in the environmental fate of carbon-based manufactured nano-particles,” Turco says.
Natalie Carroll, an associate professor in Purdue's Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education (YDAE), directs the development of the team Web site ANE (pronounced Annie), which stands for Assessment of Nanomaterials in the Environment, contains information about the team's research, presentations and links to nanotechnology Web sites.
“A profusion of commercial nanomaterial products means that sometime we will find those materials accumulating in the environment,” says Carroll. “We're looking at what those scenarios could be and what some of the risks could be and how they can be reduced or avoided. When people, including children, become more aware of these issues, we want to make sure they have objective, science-based information available.”
Nanotechnology at work
While nanotechnology may sound like something from the future, the technology is already being developed for commercial applications. Nanomaterials are light and flexible, but can be harder than steel, yielding applications from cosmetics to combat gear. Combined with biological materials like antibodies, nanotechnology has been used at Purdue to create sensors for food-borne pathogens, a step to creating substances that could be used on a bigger scale for first alerts on food bioterrorism, animal diseases or crop threats.
Nanotechnology is the foundation behind many different products already on the market, such as pants that actually repel spilled coffee and tennis balls that rely on a nano-layer of silicon oxides to keep the air from being batted out of the ball.