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The Nanotechnology Spectrum

Connecting the world through nanotechnology

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Nanotechnology is a field made of many interconnected disciplines. In order to fully understand how nanotechnology works, it is important to study how these different areas all work together. The Nanotechnology Spectrum showcases the uses and challenges of nanotechnology as it applies to 14 different areas of study. These areas encompass three broad categories that are integrated within the development of nanotechnology:

Law, the Humanities and Social Science

  • Philosophy & Ethics
  • Religion
  • Economics
  • Society & Culture
  • Law

Life Sciences

  • Medicine
  • Environmental Science
  • Agriculture & Forestry

Physical Science & Critical Infrastructure

  • Materials Science
  • Energy Development
  • Engineering
  • Security & Defense
  • Transportation & Logistics
  • Electronics & Communications

 

Click on the topic areas below to learn more about the uses and challenges of nanotechnology in each of these areas.

  • Philosophy & Ethics

    Philosophy is an activity people undertake when they seek to understand fundamental truths about themselves, the world in which they live, and their relationships to the world and to each other.1 The field of ethics involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.2

    Challenges

    Nanotechnology is pushing the limits of science and altering humanity's ability to control fundamental objects of nature. The improvements being made in a variety of scientific fields is leading to the possibility of some unique and new situations, such as the creation of artificial intelligence, an enhanced human species (transhumanism) and radical life extension (a life expectancy well beyond the current one). These issues are pushing the bounds of normal existence and pose interesting questions about whether or not some of these things should happen at all, and if they do, what exactly will that mean for humanity.

  • Economics

    Economics is the study of how people choose to use resources. Resources include the time and talent people have available, the land, buildings, equipment, and other tools on hand, and the knowledge of how to combine them to create useful products and services.4

    Uses

    Nanotechnology could improve the way currency is printed and coins are minted. Indirectly, nanotechnology can improve the economic output of a nation by creating innovations that vastly improve well-being and become a disruptive technology. It is not uncommon for research and development projects at universities to spin off into tech startups. These companies create jobs and develop more innovative products. Additionally, research facilities that cater to nanotechnology researchers often draw in notable scientists, their families and other related industries. Developing nations could utilize nanotechnology to improve their overall well-being through new desalinization technologies and energy production capabilities, ultimately raising their standard of living and increasing their economic output.

    Challenges

    Some nations have the ability to spend more on nanotechnology research and development than others, so they are positioned to benefit much more economically than poorer, developing nations that could benefit from nanotechnology. In areas where nanotechnology is prevalent, low trust from the general public, unknown long-term health and environmental concerns, a general lack of awareness about nanotechnology and difficulty with scalable manufacturing methods has slowed commercialization of nanotechnology in many markets.

  • Religion

    Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.3

    Challenges

    Nanotechnology is allowing humans to manipulate matter in a way that was never possible before in human history. The ability to rearrange structures on an atomic level could be perceived as humans "playing God" and occupying the seat of their Creator. Nanotechnology has the ability to greatly improve our bodies (called human performance modification), which could potentially create super-humans. These activities could firmly place humanity in a position of power that would undermine the teachings of some religions that an all-powerful being is in control and not humanity.

  • Law

    The law is a set of rules for society, designed to protect basic rights and freedoms, and to treat everyone fairly.7

    Uses

    Nanotechnology can be used to enhance evidence-collection methods, improve criminal surveillance equipment and to increase the accuracy of forensics and laboratory testing methods.

    Challenges

    There are no specific laws or regulations that govern nanotechnology. Existing regulations in particular areas are being used to cover applications of nanotechnology. No exposure limits exist for occupational or environmental hazards related to engineered nanomaterials like they do for other chemicals. Patentability (the ability of a product to qualify for a patent) and intellectual property rights regarding the creation of new nanomaterials have raised interesting questions and are still unresolved. Debate lingers regarding whether or not to ban nanotechnology for use in the development weapons.

  • Medicine

    Medicine is the science of preventing, diagnosing, alleviating, or curing disease.8

    Uses

    Nanotechnology is being used in four key areas in healthcare: diagnostics and imaging, drug delivery systems, tissues engineering and implantable devices. These uses will impact the detection and treatment of a variety of illnesses. For example, clinical trials are under way for new types of cancer drugs that use engineered nanomaterials to directly target tumor cells. Other nanotechnology products have allowed certain laboratory tests to be performed in a fraction of the time as previous tests. Nanotechnology has been used in research facilities to create structures that can enter cells and deliver medications and proteins; this has not been possible before and would greatly improve medical treatment for illness like cancer. Studies have shown that it is possible to repair tissue in organs, such as the lens of the eye, and could improve visual problems dramatically.

    Challenges

    It is still unclear exactly how drugs that are built with engineered nanomaterials are processed by cells and organs. These tiny particles act very different than larger drugs, so more information is needed. Engineered nanoparticles are so small that they can cross through protective membranes (like the blood-brain barrier and the placenta). This action has unknown effects since most particles typically do not cross these barriers. In addition, the long-term durability of implantable devices made from nanomaterials is not known either. The majority of healthcare systems are not prepared to accommodate the storage and use of engineered nanomaterials, and most patients are not familiar with the concept. Processes, procedures and quality assurance systems still need to be developed in order to keep healthcare workers and patients safe. Animal studies have suggested that engineered nanoparticles can damage DNA and possibly cause cancer.

  • Society & Culture

    Society can be described as people in general living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values.5 A culture is a way of life of a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.6

    Challenges

    In pluralistic societies, such as the United States, different cultures exist together, and while they frequent the same types of establishments, such as hospitals, retail stores and entertainment venues, each group views these activities differently and has different needs. Nanotechnology applications will affect different people in different ways. In some areas of the country, language barriers will be challenging in terms of explaining what nanotechnology is. In healthcare settings, it might be very difficult to describe a procedure utilizing nanotechnology, and certain religious groups might not want to be treated with a nano-enabled device at all. Being aware of these situations and learning how to approach potential solutions will be a critical aspect of making the acceptance of nanotechnology successful.

  • Agriculture & Forestry

    Agriculture is the art and science of cultivating the soil, growing crops and raising livestock.10 The forestry profession encompasses the science and practice of establishing, managing, using, and conserving forests, trees and associated resources in a sustainable manner to meet desired goals, needs, and values.11

    Uses

    Nanotechnology has been used in food packaging to keep foods fresher for longer. New types of pesticides have been developed using engineered nanomaterials, which seem to be more effective in reducing pests. In addition, new vaccines and veterinary medicines to treat livestock are in production.

    Challenges

    The long-term impact of nano-pesticides in the environment is not known, because they act differently than traditional pesticides and could be washed off plants then absorbed into groundwater. The mechanisms of nano-medications used to treat livestock are not well known either. Food packaging containing engineered nanomaterials has been banned in some areas, such as Europe, because little is known about how the packaging may break down when exposed to heat or light.

  • Environmental Science

    Environmental Science provides an integrated, quantitative, and interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental systems.9

    Uses

    Nanotechnology can be used to develop filters that can clean and purify water in wastewater treatment plants and in areas of the world where clean, fresh water is not easily available. Engineered nanomaterials can be used as catalysts to clean emissions from cars, factories and power plants. Nanotechnology also is being used to improve the efficiency of cleaning up contaminated sites. Nanosensors could be used to improve detection of chemicals in the environment and decrease the cost of monitoring pollution.

    Challenges

    Engineered nanomaterials that are not bound in other materials can be released into the soil, water or air. These materials could be absorbed by plants through their roots and cause cellular damage. They could also be ingested or inhaled by humans and other animals. Little has been done to characterize the complete life cycle of most engineered nanomaterials, which is the path from creation to disposal. More research on the recyclability of nano-enabled products must be done. Environmental conditions, such as sunlight and water chemistry, have the potential to alter the properties of nanomaterials.

  • Engineering

    Engineering is the practical application of science and math to solve problems.14

    Uses

    Nanotechnology could be used to strengthen materials, such as concrete, steel and other metals. Additionally, engineered nanomaterials, like carbon nanotubes, can be integrated into polymers and carbon fiber to make them even stronger. Sensors made with nanotechnology could be embedded into dams and bridges to act as early warning systems for failure and can transmit real-time signals of stress and strain.

    Challenges

    Engineered nanomaterials have properties that are very different than their more commonly used counterparts. It is difficult to characterize how these materials will withstand normal wear and tear through the long term. In addition, some materials might be difficult to work with since they have not been used in large-scale construction projects beyond research labs.

  • Energy Development

    Energy development is a field of endeavor focused on making available sufficient primary energy sources and secondary energy forms to meet the needs of society. These endeavors encompass those which provide for the production of conventional, alternative and renewable sources of energy, and for the recovery and reuse of energy that would otherwise be wasted.13

    Uses

    Nanotechnology has been used to improve batteries and energy storage for vehicles and devices. Photovoltaic cells (used for solar energy) are one of the primary uses of engineered nanomaterials. Because they are light-weight, nano-enforced composites are used in the blades of wind turbines. Eventually, nanotechnology can be used to improve the electrical grid system and can be used in smart-grid technology to improve power transmission and energy security. Power generation remains an evolving area of nanotechnology, but other uses of nanotechnology, such as in paints and coatings for generators and power plants, are used quite often.

    Challenges

    Nanomaterials are expensive and impractical to use in many areas of energy production. Production of products using engineered nanomaterials for the energy sector can pose occupational and environmental hazards.

  • Materials Science

    Materials Science involves the study of the relationships between the synthesis, processing, structure, properties, and performance of materials that enable an engineering function.12

    Uses

    Techniques, such as electron microscopy and complex chemical synthesis, are being used to create engineered nanomaterials. Some of these structures are being used to develop materials that are stronger, lighter and more flexible than ever. New types of materials using nanotechnology also are being used to create materials that can invisible.

    Challenges

    Interactions at the nanoscale are based on quantum physics, which is a branch of physics that deals with the phenomena of fundamental particles at extremely small scales. Working with individual atoms or just small numbers of atoms is extremely difficult and results are inconsistent. Furthermore, taking processes that have been developed in the lab and moving them to mass production can be challenging and expensive. There is no information on the durability of consumer products made with engineered nanomaterials and the potential risk for exposure.

  • Transportation & Logistics

    Transportation is the process of shipping or moving an item from one point to another. Common forms of transportation include planes, trains, subway systems, buses and automobiles.17 Logistics is the flow of funds, goods, and information between source and consumer.18

    Uses

    Nanotechnology-enabled materials are lighter and stronger than traditional materials and would reduce the weight of vehicles, which improves fuel efficiency, and also adds additional protection in accidents. Sensors in airplanes, cars, trains, ships and other vehicles could improve real-time tracking of goods and would dramatically reduce lost shipments and would improve freshness for perishable goods. Nanotechnology can improve electronics and telecommunications that are used in early-warning detection systems for operator fatigue and collision alerts.

    Challenges

    No specific regulations exist regarding the shipment of unbound engineered nanomaterials. Furthermore, there are no requirements for nano-specific labels on transportation placards or shipping packages. If there were an accidental release of engineered nanomaterials during shipping, first responders would not be aware of the nature of the cargo onboard. In addition, there is no training available on how to handle a nanomaterial spill.

  • Security & Defense

    Security is reducing the risk to critical infrastructure by physical means or defense cyber measures to intrusions, attacks, or the effects of natural or manmade disasters.15 Defense is the action of defending from or resisting attack.16

    Uses

    Nanotechnology can be used to make sensors that could serve as an early warning system to detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive agents. Sensors placed at ports and airports could deter terrorists and identify threats early. On the battlefield, nanotechnology can be used in medicine and also in sensors. Nano-enabled materials can improve the strength and decrease the weight of aerial drones and combat ships. In addition, nanotechnology can be used to improve communications networks.

    Challenges

    Engineered nanomaterials potentially could be weaponized and used in terrorist attacks or in combat. Accidental release of engineered nanomaterials from research labs or production facilities could pose community harm. There are no methods to detect rogue nanomaterials.

  • Electronics & Communications

    The concept of electronics is used for electronic components, integrated circuits, and electrical systems.19 The discipline of communication focuses on how people use messages to generate meanings within and across various contexts, cultures, channels, and media.20

    Uses

    Metal nanoparticles, such as gold, silver and copper can reduce waste, decrease the size of transistors and chips and improve conduction of electrical signals. The semiconductor industry is largely using nanotechnology to make smaller chips which leads to smaller electronic devices, such as phones and computers.

    Challenges

    Using engineered nanomaterials while producing electronics can pose occupational and environmental hazards. The extremely small particles potentially can be inhaled by workers without proper protection. Nanomaterials produced as waste could be released through industrial discharge into the environment.

References

  1. Florida State University. Department of Philosophy. What is Philosophy?
  2. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ethics.
  3. Dictionary.com. Religion.
  4. American Economic Association. What is Economics?
  5. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Society.
  6. Texas A&M University. Culture.
  7. Organization of American States. Information Exchange Network for Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and Extradition. What is the Law?
  8. Collins Dictionary. Medicine.
  9. Iowa State University. Environmental Science.
  10. National Geographic Society. Education. Agriculture.
  11. United States Department of Agriculture. Forests and Forestry.
  12. University of Pennsylvania. Engineering. What is Materials Science?
  13. ScienceDaily. Energy Development.
  14. Georgia Tech. School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. What Is Engineering?
  15. Department of Homeland Security. What is Security and Resilience?
  16. Oxford Dictionaries. Defense.
  17. Business Dictionary.com. Transportation.
  18. UPS. UPS Solutions. Defining Logistics, How It Relates to Your Supply Chain and Why It’s Crucial for Your Company. What is Logistics?
  19. Norwegian University of Science and Technology. What is Electronics?
  20. National Communication Association. What is Communication?

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Want to know more about ORAU’s Nanotechnology Studies Program?

Jeffrey Leifel
Jeffrey.Leifel@orau.org
(865) 574-1443

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