Have you ever imagined how small the scale of a technology can be? Can a technology involve nanoparticles? To imagine this unusual world, you need to get an idea of the units of measure. A millimetre is one-thousandth of a meter and a micrometre is one-millionth of a meter. But all of these are still large when compared to the nanoscale. One nanometre is a billionth of a metre and a sheet of newspaper measures about 100,000 nanometres thick. On a comparative scale, if a pebble were a nanometre, then one meter would be the size of the Earth. This definitely makes it harder to even think of a technology that can be operated on a nanoscale known as Nanotechnology.

However, in the real world, such a technology does exist. Derived from the Greek word “nano,” meaning dwarf, Nanotechnology is the molecular manufacturing of very small materials and systems (approximately 1 to 100 nanometres in diameter) through the micromanipulation of nanostructure properties of matter. In simpler terms, Nanotechnology is a science, engineering, and technology of building things on the nanoscale. Since the dimensions of the particles involved are in nanometres, this technology is called nanotechnology and the resulting materials are called nanomaterials. Long before the term ‘nanotechnology’ was actually used, the ideas and concepts that sowed the seeds for nanoscience and nanotechnology began with a talk entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959. Feynman described a process to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules.

Although modern nanotechnology is quite recent and advanced, nanoscale materials have been used for centuries. Gold and silver particles were used to create colours in the stained-glass windows of medieval churches hundreds of years ago. While working with such materials, those artists didn’t realise that this led to changes in the configuration of molecules. Given the promising prospects of nanotechnology and to take advantage of the enhanced properties of nanomaterials, scientists are finding ways to make materials on the nanoscale. Governments believe that nanotechnology will bring about a new era of productivity and wealth and this is reflected in the way public investment in Nanotechnology R&D has risen during the past decade. 

Nanotechnology is already a huge industry with billions of dollars being spent on its research and development worldwide. New nano-products hit the market at an enviable rate of 3-4% per week and the list of materials that are being developed commercially is growing at a very fast rate. During the last decade, more than US$67 billion were invested in nanotechnology funding across the globe. In the developing world, with China, South Korea and India being considered as ‘front-runners’, countries have shown their commitment to Nanotechnology by establishing government-funded programmes and research institutes. The Government of India also launched the Nano Mission in 2007. 

Nanotechnology influences almost all areas of our lives, including materials and manufacturing, information and biological technologies, health, environment and agriculture. Nano-products that are commercially available at present include self-cleaning glass, cosmetics, household appliances, surface coatings etc. Scientists are turning to Nanotechnology in an attempt to develop engines with cleaner exhaust fumes. Cars that are manufactured with nanomaterials require fewer metals and less fuel to operate. 

However, one of its most promising applications, which aims to provide great benefits to society, is in the world of medicine. A multitude of Nanotechnology-based drugs are commercially available at present. Besides, Nanotechnology is already being used to achieve targeted drug delivery through employment of nanoparticles to deliver drugs to specific cells. Particles are engineered to get attracted to diseased cells and secreting drugs in a controlled manner, thus, lowering the side effects by reducing the impact on non-targeted cells. Nanoscale devices that are implanted inside the body can also help serve this purpose. These devices have shorter biochemical reaction time and are less invasive and more sensitive than typical drug delivery. 

Nanotechnology can be used in tissue engineering as well. The introduction of nano-robot, a molecular device (measuring in nanometres), in the body provides the scope for repairing or reproducing specific damaged tissues without affecting the healthy ones. The cells can be artificially grown using nanomaterial-based scaffolds and growth factors. Tissue engineering might even replace conventional treatments like organ transplants or artificial implants in the future.

Furthermore, Nanotechnology provides a novel and improved approach to cancer diagnosis and treatment. Involving use of very small, or ‘nano’ particles, measuring about one thousandth the width of a human hair, Nanotechnology has allowed better imaging, early and more accurate diagnosis and treatment monitoring. The small size allows them to preferentially accumulate at tumour sites due to an enhanced permeability. Nano-robots indicate the presence of a malicious change in the body and also attempt to reverse those premalignant changes or to kill cells that have the potential to become malignant. They can also be used to detect other damages and infections in the human body. 

With its potential of delivering promising solutions to many illnesses in a better, more efficient and affordable manner, Nanotechnology has raised the expectations of millions of patients. Its use in medicine has indeed revolutionised the way we detect and treat the diseases suffered by humans. Besides all of its applications that are being actually used at present, there are various others at different stages of their development, making remarkable progress towards becoming realities.

The potential of Nanotechnology is evident from the views of Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, who addressed the US Committee on Science in 1999. “The impact of nanotechnology on the health, wealth, and lives of people,” he said, “will be at least equivalent to the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering and man-made polymers developed in this century.” Others, however, are not as enthusiastic as Richard Smalley is. Eric Drexler, a scientist who coined the term nanotechnology, warns that the self-replicating models created by humans might escape control, leading to the development of extremely powerful and dangerous technologies. 

Inhaling airborne nanoparticles can cause a number of pulmonary diseases. Researchers have found that when rats breathed in nanoparticles, particles settled in their brain and lungs, leading to significant increases in skin ageing, DNA and chromosome damage and stress response. Since the human body has no natural immunity to new substances and is more likely to find them toxic, nano-products may have unintended consequences. Their use can lead to major complications such as cancer, heart and neurological disease. Therefore, the development of Nanotechnology faster than policy-makers’ pace to devise appropriate regulatory measures also remains an area of concern. The impact that use of nanomaterials has on human health and environment compels groups to advocate for Nanotechnology to be regulated by governments. But there are others who believe that such overregulation would stifle scientific research and hinder the development of beneficial innovations. With health applications raising moral and ethical dilemmas such as cost and availability, public deliberations have found more support for Nanotechnology’s application in energy than health. 

Nanotechnology is on the verge of various innovative advances, which excites and concerns many. But there is still a great deal to learn about both the benefits and risks of this technology. Thus, a multipronged approach is necessary to ensure that its potential can be fully leveraged for the betterment of all as concerns remain regarding its repercussions on humans as well as the impact this industry can have on the North-South divide.

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