What Are Nanoparticles?

Nanotechnology may be the next big thing in science, and before long we will probably find ourselves immersed in it. Currently, however, intimate knowledge of what nanotechnology is and how it works tends to be rather limited. Essentially this field studies materials at their most basic level; it breaks substances down into particles and then either uses their natural properties or manipulates them in order to achieve desired effects.

Hence, any discussion of nanotechnology—its processes, its applications, its impacts—must of necessity revolve around one of the tiniest things in the world: the nanoparticle.Wondering what are nanoparticles? A nanoparticle is defined as the smallest unit that can still behave as a whole entity in terms of properties and transport.

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Typically, your average nanoparticle will measure anywhere from 100 to 2500 nanometers (or in other words, extremely small.) Ultrafine nanoparticles are classified as even tinier than that, weighing in at only 1 to 100 nanometers in size.

This microscopic particle holds the key to much of what science hopes to accomplish in the near future. In some cases when a substance is broken down into its individual nanoparticles it suddenly assumes behaviors and characteristics that were not previously associated with the unit as a whole.

This seems to have something to do with the overall number of surface atoms; the more individual pieces there are, the more surface area there is, and a surface atom tends to react differently than one that is at the center of a substance.

This unique size and behavior also bridges the scientific gap between large materials, which are often too bulky to interact on a delicate scale, and molecules or atoms, which do not exhibit the large-scale properties that nanoparticles are capable of.

Having such capabilities means that nanoparticles are extremely versatile, so it is difficult to discuss one overarching purpose for the nanoparticle in future technology. As a matter of fact, the nanoparticle will probably be everywhere doing everything.

For example, researchers have recently discovered that individual silicon nanoparticles can be affixed to a piece of paper in order to create an electricity-conducting circuit without recourse to the creation of a metallic or plastic chip. If the technology is refined enough to be released publicly, it could revolutionize the entire electronics industry.

Paper is many times cheaper than either silicon or plastic and also much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly to produce. If we could design and manufacture delicate electronics on the nanoscale and use a paper base for them, we could greatly reduce our technological carbon footprint while at the same time increasing our efficiency.

This is all thanks to the fact that nanoparticles typically are better at conducting an electrical current than elements that have not been broken down into particles. Hence, they don’t need the silicon base that most microchips are famous for.

This doesn’t mean that the Silicon Valley days are over; far from it. It simply means that while silicon will continue to be a major player in the technology industry, it will have to be broken down into particles and adjust to the demands of nanotechnology.

Actually, it turns out that silicon nano-components, also known as transducers, are the perfect materials for constructing what nanotechnologists call the nanorobot. This tiny mechanical entity, also known as a nanobot, has the potential to drastically alter everything in our lives but especially the way we practice medicine. The ideal nanobot has not yet been fully developed, although it is anticipated that they will make their public debut sometime in the next 25 years.

Researchers want to achieve a microscopic autonomous robot that measures no more than six nanometers across and can be controlled by remote. Swarms of these nanobots could clean your house, and since they’re invisible to the naked eye, their effects would appear to be magical. They could also swim easily and harmlessly through your bloodstream, which is what medical scientists find exciting.

With such technology at their disposal, doctors could simply inject a team of nanobots into a patient and automatically be able to identify and destroy everything from bacteria and viruses to cancerous growths. Nanobots are small enough that they can interact with these pathogens and malignant tumors on a molecular level—and this is something that no trained surgeon, however skilled he or she may be, can do effectively.

Humans are simply too big. Nanobots, however, are so tiny that they can even rebuild damaged tissue one cell at a time; they can repair bleeding veins and remove cholesterol buildup from a clogged artery. They could also provide revolutionary new insight into the human body. Scientists expect that the nanobots will be fully capable of supporting a tiny camera system on their microscopic bodies, so that as they swim through the human system they can send data back to doctors and researchers.

There is so much we still don’t know about our own bodies that we could discover with tools like these. It has even been suggested that nanobots could swim harmlessly up through the spinal column and investigate the way the human brain functions on a cellular level, thereby solving one of the greatest mysteries of nature.

All of these possibilities grow directly from the implications of the nanoparticle. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to interact so effectively with the molecules and atoms of different substances, including our own bodies.

Nanotechnology has even been developed to the point where if the natural substance doesn’t change simply by being broken down into particles, scientists can go in and manually adjust their properties in order to create the effect they want.

In some cases this means mixing them with another substance; sometimes it means coating the larger material unit with a layer of its own modified nanoparticles in order to increase and magnify its abilities, as has been recently discovered with solar panels—their ability to absorb ultraviolet light was increased tenfold when the normal silicon panels were coated with an altered layer of silicon nanoparticles. But in all cases it has been shown over and over again that nanoparticles are the future of technology, and that this future will be glorious indeed.

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