Science of the TiNY

Small is BeAuTiFuL

Nanotechnology is the science of the extremely extremely tiny….chotu chotu chhotttuuuuuu

It allows man to manipulate matter at the nanoscale (down to 1/100,000 the width of a human hair) to create new and unique materials and products.

Think this, if the world were scaled down so that people averaged 100 nanometers tall, the Moon would be about 8 inches (20.5 cm) across—that’s the size of a soccer ball. The Earth would be roughly 30 inches (76 cm) in diameter. (The average human height (in the US) is about 168 cm. The Moon is about 3,475 km in diameter; Earth is about 12,750 km across.)

Nanotechnology is more than just shrinking, but fundamentally changing the internal structure of compounds! Pure carbon may have two familiar avatars: diamond and graphite (pencil lead). But by arranging carbon into precise nanometer-scale structures, a new product can be made that is up to thirty times stronger than steel, yet is 1/6 th the weight. This form of carbon (called a “nanotube,” or, more accurately, “nanotubes”) is one of the earliest forms of nanotechnology.

Today new nanotech products hit the market at the Rate of 3-4 Per Week, and Nanotechnology Consumer Products Are in Your Mouth and On Your Face

- from lightweight-yet-strong bicycle frames and tennis rackets (made from carbon nanotubes), sunscreens (which don’t make your skin look pasty white), tupperware (from antimicrobial nanoscale silver, prevents food stored in them from going bad), air purifier, antibacterial water taps, clothes treated with nano-engineered coatings (stain-proof or static-free clothes!), to pet hairdressing appliances, pet food containers, pet chains and cages, computer chips using nanoscale components are ubiquitous in consumer electronics, from computers to mp3 players, digital cameras to video game consoles, more than 35 automotive products (including GM’s Hummer2…ooh!).

The colorful and searchable list of nanotechnology merchandise—containing everything from nanotech diamonds and cooking oil, to golf clubs and iPhones—is available free here.

Now the potentially bad news….

-> There are several environmental issues and health hazards that emerge from the existing micro-manufacturing (called top-down manufacturing of nanomaterials), and international and national organizations strongly recommend that evaluations of nanomaterials be done in a life-cycle perspective.

Concern over exploitation and depletion of scarce resources

emerges because when products get smaller and the components that include the rare materials reach the nanoscale, economy is the not the most urgent issue but increased usage of rare materials like Galium, fullerens, scandium may be foreseen due to the expected widespread use of nanotechnological products, the recycling will be more difficult , resulting in non-recoverable dissemination of scarce resources.

The fact that the extraction of most rare materials uses more energy and generates more waste than more abundant materials is reflected in the energy intensity of a range of materials


Energy intensity of materials (MJ/kg)













Epoxy resin












Carbon Nanotube Safety

Nanoscale silver followed by carbon (including carbon nanotubes and fullerenes), and zinc (including zinc oxide), titanium (including titanium dioxide), silica and gold are the most widely used in nanotech products.

These spaghetti-like structures are carbon nanotubes viewed under an electron microscope (Photo by Anastasios John Hart)

Writing in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, a research team found that long carbon nanotubes, when injected into the body cavities of mice, could behave in a way similar to the way asbestos fibers behave when inhaled in sufficient quantity, forming lesions that, in the case of asbestos, lead to mesothelioma (a lung cancer that can take 30-40 years to appear following exposure), with an exception in shorter or curly nanotubes.

(Widespread exposure to asbestos has been described as the worst occupational health disaster in U.S. history and the cost of asbestos-related disease is expected to exceed $200 billion, according to major U.S. think tank RAND Corporation.

Asbestos fibers are harmful because they are thin enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, but sufficiently long to confound the lungs’ built-in clearance mechanisms for getting rid of particles.)

Despite a 2006 worldwide investment of $12.4 billion in nanotech R&D, comparatively little was spent on examining nanotechnology’s potential environmental, health and safety risks.

This is in direct relevance of nanotechnology’s capability in treating Spinal Cord Injuries, Diabetes, Heart and Parkinson’s Disease. Imagine a world where damaged organs in your body—kidneys, liver, heart—can be stimulated to heal themselves. Envision people tragically paralyzed whose injured spinal cords can be repaired. Think about individuals suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s relieved of their symptoms – completely and permanently.

It fuels a scientist to have a wish-list of manifesting room-temperature superconductivity, matter assembly bottom-up like nature does, building cognitive machines…and questions like “Are matter, information and energy the same?” (this is my most favorite question because this is exactly where the pathways of science and spirituality fuse…to prove that both are complementary.), “What happens when we merge nanotechnology with a cell?”

Apple's iPod Nano may be small, but now researchers have made a radio that really deserves the title "nano." – Mason Inman

In a dramatic demonstration of early research on the self-assembly capability of nanotechnology, Dr. Samuel I. Stupp (director of the Institute of BioNanotechnology in Medicine at Northwestern University) showed paralyzed lab mice with spinal cord injuries regain the ability to walk using their hind limbs six weeks after a simple injection of a purpose-designed nanomaterial. This can enable individualized patient treatments in previously unimaginable ways.

Think this:

doctors in Kenya could equip cells of the retina with photoswitches that can be flipped on, enabling blind nerve cells to see and restoring light sensitivity in people with degenerative blindness?

Public health workers in Bangladesh could place contaminated water into transparent bottles, which when placed in direct sunlight could disinfect the water and help prevent water-borne diseases?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative have pitched in investments towards this research already.

If the US government and industry do not work to build public confidence in nanotechnology, consumers may vote ‘No-Nano’ and investors will put their money elsewhere. Europe Spends Nearly Twice as Much as U.S. on Nanotech Risk Research.

We are visionaries, very much attached to the reality- but the ideas must be anchored in logic and more importantly, must be socially and environmentally responsible.