The What’s Up with Science? blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series matches technical explanations with relatable analogies to explain opportunities and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
I’ll be honest. I never quite understood the appeal of being Ant-Man, especially if being Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, or some other classic superhero is on the table. In case you’re unfamiliar, Ant-Man wears a special suit that allows him to shrink all the way down to sub-microscopic size. Think Honey, I Shrunk the Kids but with a Marvel Comics twist. In any case, I could never grasp the benefit of being that tiny…until I thought of Ant-Man as a type of nanotechnology.
Understanding nanotechnology requires a brief foray into the field of nanoscience, which involves studying phenomena that occur at the nanoscale. The nanoscale exists in the size range between 1 and 100 nanometers. For reference, a red blood cell and a human hair have diameters of approximately 7,000 and 80,000 nanometers, respectively – too big to be considered nanoscale. Atoms, on the other hand, have diameters less than 1 nanometer. Thus, nanoscience deals with the goings-on of atoms and molecules.
The intrigue here lies in the fact that nanoscale materials tend to have very different properties than the same materials in bulk form. To visualize this, think of how the punch packed by human-sized Ant-Man would differ in concentration and pressure compared to that of the equally strong yet ant-sized Ant-Man. Materials at the nanoscale can contrast with their bulk analogs by exhibiting differences in color, ability to carry heat or electricity, or capacity to dissolve in water. They may have unusually high strength, like Spider-Man’s web, or even transition from opaque to transparent, like Wonder Woman’s plane.
But why do material properties change at the nanoscale? Put simply, the many quantum forces of all the atoms in a large chunk of material (i.e., the size scale that we’re used to) can be averaged to achieve a given property. However, the smaller your chunk of material gets, the less accurate this averaging becomes. The practical result is that scientists can tailor the size and structure of materials at the nanoscale to elicit a range of desired properties.
Nanotechnology is just that: the design and creation of nanoscale materials that have desirable, hand-picked properties for particular applications. This is similar to how Ant-Man can tailor his size—giant, human, ant, microscopic, or sub-microscopic—to whatever superhero goal he’s trying to achieve. In the real world, nanotechnology is appealing because it allows us to improve materials by creating smaller, better-performing, and sometimes lower-cost alternatives. Various guidelines for best practices have been developed and discussions about ethical, legal, and societal issues continue to be had, all of which has allowed opportunities associated with nanotechnology to play out in our everyday lives.
For example, automobiles use nanotechnology in their batteries, sensors, electronics, and catalytic converters. Antireflective surface coatings for glasses and devices have been developed using nanoscale materials. Nanotechnology is even improving the conversion efficiency of solar panels and providing solutions for environmental remediation, finding applications in oil spill cleanup and desalination. Sports equipment, sunscreen, memory chips, ultra-high definition TV displays, and even some cancer treatments implement nanotechnology today.
Long story short, I thought about these myriad applications—and about how nanoscience works, in general—and realized that Wonder Woman’s invisible plane, Spider-Man’s strong web, and various other incredible “superpowers,” while fictitious, could most closely be achieved using nanotechnology. Then it hit me: Ant-Man is practically nanotechnology himself! Maybe there’s some appeal to being Ant-Man after all.
It turns out that the U.S. Government was way ahead of me when it comes to appreciating the nanoscale; it’s been engaged in nanotechnology research and development for more than two decades. The National Nanotechnology Initiative was launched in 2000 as an interagency effort to enhance, guide, and promote nanotechnology R&D in the United States. International engagement on nanotechnology is one focal point and includes regulatory cooperation, standards development, and various diplomatic efforts. Many research projects (ranging from advanced manufacturing to solid-state lighting) and health programs have and will continue to put nanotechnology front and center.
Humans may not be superheroes, but nanotechnology gives us super power by allowing us to reap the largest rewards from some of the world’s smallest objects. How have you benefited from nanotechnology today?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Science and Technology Policy Adviser in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State (STAS). She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.