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How Small is Nano?
Defining a nanometer may be easy: One meter equals one billion nanometers. But it isn’t as easy to picture how small a nanometer really is. The first step can be to try imagining a billion of something. If you asked a billion girls to stand on each other’s shoulders, they would stretch into space two-and-a-half times farther than the Moon. Another way is to imagine a billionth of something big. If you sliced the world’s tallest building a billion times, each slice would be thinner than the red blood cells you see through a microscope. Nano is even smaller than that. And, because it’s so small, nanotechnology can influence atoms and molecules in strange ways.
What Happens at The Nanoscale?
The combined interactions of billions of molecules produce physical properties like color and magnetism. Imagine a hundred regular people sitting on a stage. Their behavior is natural — and pretty boring. Now imagine a hundred people picked for their musical skills. Their unique talents interact and combine to create an orchestra’s performance. This is a little like how physical properties work. The way all the atoms in the iris of an eye interact with light, for example, is what makes them brown or blue. But changing an orchestra’s musicians, their instruments, or the way they play music would end up changing the overall performance. Nanotechnology is sort of like that. We replace what happens naturally at the nanoscale to change the way things work at our scale.
NanoTechs Will Be Everywhere
The phones we use every day depend on nanotechnology. Their computer chips have transistors that are as little as 30-50 nanometers apart. But how much smaller could they get? Australian scientist Michelle Simmons leads a team that has produced a transistor from a single atom!
Virologist Florencia Linero hopes nanotechnology will cure a disease in her home country of Argentina. The human immune system has a hard time detecting the virus that causes the disease. So Dr. Linero’s treatment uses nanobodies, small bits of a llama’s immune system, to make the virus visible and treatable.
Cancer is hard to treat, because even one left over cell can create new tumors. Cancer researcher Hadiyah-Nicole Green is using nano-scale gold particles to destroy left-over cancer cells. The rod-shaped particles get absorbed by the cancer cells. Dr. Green then uses laser light to heat the gold nanorods. The resulting bubbles tear the cancer cells apart.
Unfortunately, some people think shiny, black solar panels are too ugly to put on their homes. Dutch scientist Verena Neder conducts research that could change that attitude. Carving nano-scale patterns into the solar panels changes the color of reflected light. Such solar panels could match the color of a roof and look more attractive.
Climate change will make it even harder for people around the world to find clean water. Nanotechnology could help, thanks to University of California scientist Baoxia Mi. Her research aims to make cheaper, better filters that pull pollutants out of wastewater to create pure drinking water.
What Nanotech Could You Invent?
Today’s scientists have only scratched the surface of nanotechnology. Imagine yourself working on the smallest scales. What magnificent new materials would you create?