July 1, 2020
Humans have used nanotechnology since ancient times, even without having fully developed such a concept. In Chiapas, Mexico, mural paintings were created by the Maya civilization. A pigment called “Maya blue,” with a beautiful intense color was synthesized mixing indigo plants with a clay mineral, obtaining a product with an incredible resistance to alkalis, acids, sunlight, and bio-corrosion. We can find another example in Roman times. Depending on the direction of the light, the Licurgo glass cup, showed a different color, from green to red. The explanation of the phenomena is that the artists that produced it created a dispersion of metal nanoparticles embedded in a glass matrix. But it is not until the 19th century that nanotechnology was scientifically approached.
“There’s plenty of room at the bottom.”
If you are familiar with nanotechnology, most probably you already know that this is the lecture that the famous scientist Richard Feynman gave at Caltech in 1959. It is considered somehow the beginning of nanotechnology as it was the first time that a physicist proposed the direct manipulation of individual atoms, “arrange them the way we want,” to perform a more powerful chemical synthesis. Feynman also described the importance of scale on physical phenomena and challenged the audience to create a nanomotor and to scale down letters to be able to fit the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin.
But we need to advance in time until 1974 to find the term “nanotechnology” coined by Norio Taniguchi, a professor at Tokyo University of Science. For him, nanotechnology consisted of “the separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule.” And he used it to describe semiconductor processes, providing the ability to work with an extremely high precision in manufacturing.
But not only theory work arose in the decade of the ‘80s. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was a significant step forward in the experimental field, which brought additional attention to the emerging technology. The reason is that it provided a visualization of atoms and chemical bondings that enabled the manipulation of individual atoms. Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their findings in 1986. The same team also developed the atomic force microscope.
Still in the same decade, in 1985, fullerenes were found by Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley, and Robert Curl, receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. Even if at the beginning this finding was not considered nanotechnology, it was later included as such when linked to graphene nanotubes with applications in nanoelectronics.
The next big step came in the 2000 decade, when nanotechnology drew attention due to its high potential, considering that it might change the world in the same way that the Industrial Revolution did. In this period, new nano-based products were launched into the market. Some examples are the use of metal nanoparticle dispersions as an anti-bacterial agent, nanoparticles in sunscreens, tennis rackets with increased stiffness containing graphene, etc.
Nowadays, nanotechnology is a promising field, mainly in medicine. Eric Topol and Axel Scherer at Caltech have developed nanosensors for the detection of a heart attack. Harvard University scientists have 3D printed tiny batteries with applications for medical devices. ETH Switzerland has created a nanorobot magnetically guided by electromagnetic fields, with the ability to perform precision surgery or deliver minimal quantities of drugs. High expectations are also in finding an alternative to chemotherapy due to its devastating secondary effects. The focus is on the production of nanodevices that deliver the necessary quantity of a drug only in the affected area.
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