Sunday, 8 July 2018

A Brief Introduction to Nanotechnology

by Katie O'Flaherty

Until a year ago, I had never heard of the field of nanotechnology, but since stumbling across it in the form of nanoputians, the more I research, the more fascinating the field becomes. With over $5 billion invested in the field worldwide in 2012, and growing interest since then, many nations regard nanotechnology as one of the emerging fields which holds massive potential, whether it be in the field of electronics, medicine, energy storage, or a plethora of other fields.

Nanoputians are organic molecules whose structural formulae resemble human forms. First synthesised by James Tour et al. at Rice University (a research-centric university in the USA at the forefront of a lot of scientific research), most of these compounds consist of two benzene rings (a ring of 6 carbon atoms attached by alternating single and double bonds) connected with a few carbon atoms to make up the body, with numerous other functional groups to make up the rest of the body. These are used as a purely educational tool, primarily for attracting and educating children in the field of nanotechnology, as well as chemistry, physics, biology, and materials science.

NanoKid has been the star of numerous educational videos, including those on the periodic table, DNA, and covalent bonding (bonding in which one or more pairs of electrons are shared between atoms). NanoKid has also been used to synthesise the NanoProfessionals, using an acetal exchange reaction and microwave oven irradiation, to substitute the head of the NanoKid for many others to create NanoAthlete, NanoPilgrim, and NanoTexan, to name but a few of the growing family.

Nanomedicine is a rapidly growing facet to the field of nanotechnology, and although it faces a lot of cynicism, particularly due to fears of toxicity and its impact in the environment, its potential is immense. Already it is used in a number of applications, with nanomedicine sales reaching $16 billion in 2015, and thus far has not proved to encounter any of the suspected potential problems. One of the large fields being looked into for nanomedicine is targeted drug delivery, with a possibility of delivering specific drugs to specific cells, thus the overall drug consumption and side-effects may be lowered significantly if not entirely.

Of many, a course  of treatment which could be significantly affected by this is PEP. PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is a combination of HIV drugs that can stop the virus taking hold if taken within 72 hours of exposure. It is particularly used by health workers who have been exposed to the virus in the job while trying to help others, yet the current side effects include severe nausea, diarrhoea, and tiredness, mood changes, vomiting, and prolonged headaches, all of which have the be suffered potentially throughout the whole month-long course of treatment. The ability to identify and deliver the drugs directly to the HIV-infected cells would not only save many people severe side-effects, but also save a significant amount of money for health organisations like the NHS, as PEP is a very expensive treatment, with each full course coating between $600 and $1000. This same principle could be applied to innumerable other treatments, including chemotherapy, which not only affects countless people, but affects their lives in ways most people cannot even imagine.

Much as I have barely scratched the surface of the iceberg that is nanotechnology, I hope this has served to show a glimpse of two of an infinite range of topics, some known, others yet to be discovered. With a potential to solve problems from cancer to nanoelectronics, the applications seem truly infinite, with a chance to make a true impact and change in today’s society and the future.

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