Nanotechnology- an emerging technology

05 August 2015

IMechE releases a report on nanotechnology and discusses how engineers are developing real world applications. 

A nanomaterial measures between 1-100 nanometres. Nanotechnology is the manipulation of these minute materials, it will allow us to control individual atoms and molecules and take advantage of the enhanced characteristics they offer, such as high strength and lighter weight, to create advanced new materials and products.

The report, ‘Nanotechnology: The societal impact of the invisible’, states that even though nanotechnology is still in its early stages, it is already having a large impact on global markets. At least 60 countries have national or state-funded nanotechnology initiatives and the global market is expected to reach $4.4T by 2018. The UK is at the forefront of this emerging technology with over 450 registered nanotechnology companies, 60 universities offering degrees based on the technology and 20 of those universities are recognised as leading research centres that cover all aspects of nanotechnology, including medicine and electronics. 

Nanotechnology has unique characteristics and engineers are only now beginning to take advantage of them to make new products and applications. For example, in the automotive industry, using nanomaterials to create new tyres increases the efficiency and reliability of the material, improving the overall emissions of the vehicle while maintaining all the safety requirements necessary. 

Engineers within the electronics industry have been looking for ways to make efficient and longer lasting batteries. In 2014 researchers from Stanford University discovered that by using nanoparticles, they could create a pure lithium anode, stabilising it with a coating of nanospheres of carbon, resulting in the potential to give batteries a far greater life expectancy and storage capacity. 

Nanotechnology is growing increasingly important within the medical industry, enabling rapid and accurate disease detection, treatment and efficient drug delivery. Cancer Research UK is already funding multiple projects that bring together engineers and scientists; the scheme aims to help at least 10 projects a year by funding up to £500,000 each. Already we are seeing nanoelectronics help in the detection of various diseases, ‘QuantuMDx’ in the UK have developed a ‘nanowire based biosensor’ containing nanowires that are coated in the DNA of a specific disease, enabling the sensor to track any signs of an infection within the blood in under 20 minutes. The sensor can also detect any resistance to medicine, allowing for various forms of treatment. 

Even though nanotechnology has come a long way within engineering, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) feels that the government and the creation of regulatory guidance is lagging behind and consequently hindering the further progression of the technology. The Institute has already called for more government involvement and support. Not only is the lack of government support creating a barrier but low public perception and little collaborative research are both slowing the progress of nanotechnology. The IMechE carried out a survey on 2058 people in the UK to see how well the term ‘Nanotechnology’ was received and understood. 52% of people said they had heard the term but only 6% said they fully understood its meaning. 

The report concludes that the engineering industry now has the opportunity to engage with this emerging technology and benefit from its unique characteristics. The IMechE recommends that with combined support from the government and industries, increased knowledge and acceptance of nanotechnology will emerge and strengthen the market. 

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