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Anton Joseph Lucanus

Nanoscience: Gaining momentum in the business industry, or seen its peak?

Earlier this month, it was revealed that Islamabad’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) is planning to establish several top-tier research centers focused purely on nanoscience and technology. It comes in the wake of HEC having already successfully launched four National Centres in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation, Data Analytics and Cloud Computing and Cyber Security earlier this year. Why such a keen interest in developing national capacity in the small and niche emerging area that is nanoscience? An area that, admittedly, has received a lot of attention in recent years, but that simultaneously appears to be reaching its zenith – the uncertainties surrounding the potential dangers of nanofabrication too great to be overcome as rapidly as the science evolves.

Nanoscience - the study of objects at nanoscale, or 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair – is having a monumental impact on science, technology, medicine and engineering. It has been hailed a potential cure for cancer, a revolutionary approach to manufacturing and production, and quite possibly the solution to climate change. And all because, well, matter quite simply behaves very differently at the teeny, tiny scale that is nanoscale.

At nanoscale, matter tends to have unique physical, chemical, and biological properties – properties that have the ability to change when interacting with other elements or materials. It is this simple, but incredibly complex, understanding of the nanoscale that has opened the world’s science laboratories to an unexplored realm – a realm of truly incredible possibilities.

Nanotechnology has been identified as potentially able to help doctors identify, diagnose, and find treatments for various genetic diseases. In the field of cancer, gold nanoparticles have been found to have ‘sniffing’ abilities that enable scientists detect the disease. Seem crazy? It is. But believe it: as cancerous cells grow, they emit volatile organic compounds that can be detected or ‘smelt’. Nanoparticles are capable of detecting or smelling these compounds, in tiny concentrations, and so could potentially track cancer at earlier stages and even determine whether hospital patients have infections.

But there is no point in getting excited and running off to apply for a small loan for personal needs before investing in the industry. Any general consensus regarding the possible implications of the widespread application of nanotechnology is yet to be reached and so progress seems to remain fairly stagnant, despite what appears to be consistent growth.

Why? At this early phase, it is not yet known whether nanoparticles pose a risk to human health, since insufficient studies or life cycle assessments have been conducted assessing the impact nanoparticles might have on the human body. Because nanoparticles are so small, they can slip inside living cells and – once again, because of their size – this process doesn’t trigger the body’s natural immune response once they have lodged inside those cells. Worse still, there is evidence that nanoparticles are in fact capable of deforming the structure of those cells. Certain nanoparticles, when inhaled, may even cause damage to lung tissue resulting in chronic breathing problems, so the use of nanofertilizers is at this stage off limits until potential risks are further explored – and ruled out.

Jump over to manufacturing, and the possibilities are even greater. The world is currently reeling over the progress Chinese researchers have made just this month in developing a non-toxic, stretchable material for circuits for next-generation electronics and other devices. The team working at the National Center for Nanoscience and Technology call the material a metal-polymer conductor (MPC), and claim it can undergo repeated bending and stretching, meaning that circuits made with it will not only be biocompatible but able to take most two-dimensional shapes. The invention will have much broader applications for wearable electronics and implantable devices and so the world is on edge, waiting to see what will come next.

Nanofabrication has already upended the manufacturing world, with chemical vapour deposition, nanoimprint lithography, molecular beam epitaxy and self-assembly among the many new process that enable nanomanufacturing. With any luck and with continued experimentation, nanomanufacturing will in future enable products to be made with fewer imperfections and with more durability, from energy sources that are cleaner and more cost-effective. Worth celebrating right?

Investment patterns have revealed that people, and industries, are indeed celebrating. Major investments are being made in nanotech, at both state level (as we see in the instance of Istanbul) and the private sector. New York State, for example, recently invested in a $500 million initiative focused on the development of new nanofabricated semiconductors for computers and devices to be used in the solar power, health care, and aviation industries. In as early as 2014, it was reported roughly $170 billion had already been invested into nanotechnologies, and today more than 60 countries have launched national nanotechnology programs. The race to master the science and reap the resultant rewards is on, with China and the United States elbowing one another to win first place.

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