How Nanotechnology is Changing the World as We Know It
Does the cure to cancer already exist? What about the solution to climate change? Nanotechnology might offer surprising answers to these questions. Nanotechnology is an umbrella term applying to any technology designed to control matter at the nanometer scale (one nanometer being equal to 1 billionth of a meter). Nanotechnology has the real potential to fundamentally alter every area of life, due to its ability to individually manipulate molecules, some of the most basic components of the universe, in ways that have meaningful aggregate effects. This emerging science may have nearly limitless applications, but how is it being used today?
Nanotechnology is being used in medicine to fight cancer through a variety of innovative methods. Firstly, this technology is saving lives by detecting cancer early. One example of this involves a blood test that can detect early-stage cancer by discovering cancer biomarker molecules that form on gold nanoparticles after absorption of the blood’s proteins. Nanoparticles can then be used to either reverse the malignancy of tumor cells or simply kill cells that may become malignant. In this way, early-stage cancer can not only be caught; it can be prevented.
Nanotechnology is also being leveraged to diagnose numerous other diseases. A technology called “lab-on-a-chip” uses nanotechnology to offer all the diagnostic functions of a medical laboratory, with added diagnostic capabilities facilitated by the nano-sized technological components. Not only are these devices inexpensive, but they can detect the presence of several pathogens at once (including HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases like malaria, and even cancer) with wide-range screening all with a single drop of blood on its coin-sized surface. The affordability of this technology is worth noting, because it makes the lab-on-a-chip accessible to those who need it most: citizens of third-world countries with otherwise poor access to healthcare.
In cancer therapy for patients who are in the later stages of the disease, nanotechnology is being used to directly kill cancer cells. In these applications, nanoparticles are injected into the tumor and remotely activated to produce heat that destroys cancer cells locally either using magnetic fields, X-rays, or light. Nanoparticles are also being used to deliver drugs more locally for other ailments, increasing the targetability and effectiveness of these treatments while decreasing harmful side effects and the pure amount of each drug needed to help a patient.
Nanomedicine is also playing an increasingly important role in immunotherapy, which leverages parts of a patient’s immune system to fight diseases like cancer. Mouse model studies have shown that nanoparticles can be used to reprogram T-cells to rapidly clear or slow the progression of leukemia. Nanomedicine has the potential to save tens of millions of lives and as it grows as a technology and as an industry, expect to see it revolutionize all areas of medicine.
Nanotechnology is also increasing the energy efficiency of solar panels. Nanoscopic structures made from gold and magnesium fluoride are being used to develop thermophotovoltaic cells, which may be far more efficient than traditional solar technology. These cells allow for better light absorption, increase the conversion efficiency of light to electricity, and improve storage and transport of solar energy. They can even harvest light energy at night by absorbing and harnessing infrared light. Lastly, thermophotovoltaic cells can emit heat within specific spectral ranges, as opposed to the traditional cells that emit heat equally in all directions. This means that more heat energy can be captured using thermophotovoltaic cells than by using today’s conventional solar technology, thus increasing energy efficiency of solar panels on yet another front. About 1.66% of total US electricity in 2019 was generated using solar panels. Perhaps new nanotechnologies will facilitate increased adoption of this clean energy technology in the near future.
A New Hampshire-based company called Nanocomp created a novel material called Miralon after over a decade of research and development. Miralon is composed of interconnected carbon nanotubes and is created from methane gas. Methane gas is actually 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, with methane contributing to 25-30% of global warming. Nanocomp creates Miralon by utilizing specialized furnaces that transform gases (primarily methane) into the carbon-based material.
Miralon is an incredibly versatile material, outperforming competitors in many distinct industries. Miralon may appear similar to carbon fiber, but it is remarkably one-third the weight. Even more shockingly, a miralon rope that is equally as strong as a steel chain is 1/37th the weight. So, the material is both incredibly light and incredibly strong.
But the usefulness of Miralon does not end there. Miralon can also conduct electricity and heat efficiently. Miralon wires can be used to detect electrical failures and other technical issues in complex machines such as airplanes. Miralon both heats up quickly and cools down quickly, meaning that Miralon-based heaters can easily be tailored to a person’s preferences. Miralon emits little of the heat that it conducts, making it capable of heating up small regions of a room at a time, and at differing temperatures for different regions, rather than having to provide heat to an entire room uniformly. This results in heat savings of up to 10%, as well as improved customizability of heating.
Concerning the sustainability of Miralon, because it entirely composed of carbon, it is 100% recyclable and easily reusable (Nanocomp suggests reusing Miralon for tires and asphalt). Miralon can serve the same functions as stainless steel, while being significantly stronger and only slightly more expensive. Additionally, the only biproduct of Miralon production is hydrogen, which is harnessed to create hydrogen fuel cells.
Miralon has been successfully used on spacecraft for its lightness, resilience, and heat tolerance. Miralon was attributed by NASA to have reduced trip times of spacecraft by 25% purely due to the lightness of the material allowing spacecraft to travel more quickly. This is a huge improvement in space travel where trips are normally many weeks or months if not years. This makes one wonder what other benefits Miralon could offer if it were to be used in combination with other technologies and products.
If Miralon was used in place of steel in car-making, it could increase gas mileage by astronomical amounts by making cars lighter (requiring far less gasoline to go the same distance as cars made with steel). If Miralon was used in place of structural steel in construction, the energy emissions to create this steel and transport it would be drastically decreased, while the strength of the structures would remain unchanged.
Flare gas, the primary source of methane emissions, is generally considered a waste product by the oil and gas industry, but if all annual flare gas was harnessed to produce Miralon instead of being released into the atmosphere, about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced. This would produce 73.5 tons of Miralon per year and over 3 quads of hydrogen energy (100.2 quads is the total US energy use per year).
Now, considering the construction, automotive, flare gas, and heating applications of Miralon, one year’s worth of Miralon production and use (if it were to be produced with two-thirds of the world’s flare gas emissions) would save 45 quads of energy (45% of annual US energy consumption) and reduce CO2 emissions by 3 billions tons (almost 60% of annual carbon emissions). While it may be presumptuous to assume that two-thirds of the world’s flare gas emissions could be harnessed and that Miralon could be so quickly and comprehensively adopted by numerous industries and groups of consumers, the potential still exists. Should the full potential of Miralon be realized, Miralon production and use could single-handedly squander global warming.
Companies producing novel nanotechnology are grossly undervalued when compared with the revolutionary potential of their technology, with the nanotech vertical’s total annual exit amounts only exceeding $2 billion once in the last decade (in 2016, at almost $16 billion). However, the global nanomaterials market was valued at $8.5 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.1% from 2020 to 2027, with aerospace and healthcare applications cited as the biggest facilitators of this high projected growth.
While today’s applications of nanotechnology are very exciting, a big part of the conversation about nanotechnology is what its future applications may be - and if we should continue down this path.
Looking far into the future, the combination of nanotechnology and AI has long been prophesized by iconic futurists such as Ray Kurzweil to fundamentally change the world as we know it; the ability of artificial intelligence to learn and perform tasks automatically based on their learning combined with the unparalleled ability of nanotechnology to manipulate molecules is feared to one day threaten humanity in a way that can only be compared to nuclear warfare, should we choose to leverage this technology against one another. Like many powerful tools for creation and innovation, these technologies may be harbingers of an age more dangerous than ever before (if you don’t believe me, just ask Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, who have all stated that high-powered AI is even more dangerous than nuclear warfare). While far-fetched, some venture further to believe that the dangers of the combination of nanotechnology and AI exceed the risk of humans leveraging these technologies against one another, predicting that one day a phenomenon called “gray goo” may threaten to eliminate humanity (“gray goo” is the event of self-replicating nanobots coordinated by a high-powered artificial intelligence consuming all living matter). While scientists believe this variety of “doomsday” event is extremely unlikely, they do say that it is theoretically possible.
Others believe that these revolutionary innovations will only serve to elevate society to a higher standard of living and eliminate many of the problems we face today (many of which, I have discussed above). Only time can tell, but it is undoubtedly paramount that powerful technologies such as nanotechnology, nuclear technology, and AI be proactively developed responsibly and with careful consideration taken to their potential dangers to society.