Nanotechnology has the potential to change the world as we know it by transforming concepts that were once thought to be science fiction into reality. In the Star Trek universe, machines called replicators have the ability to produce practically any physical object from a new pair of boots to a slice of banana cream pie. Some experts believe that through nanotechnology, replicators can be a real possibility. Nanoparticles are already employed in some of the products we use every day. In fact, more than 2800 commercially available products are now based on nanoparticles. Many sunscreens use metal oxide nanoparticles because they efficiently protect the skin over a broader UV range.
Nanotechnology, however, may come with certain health risks. Yue-Wern Huang, professor of biological sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has been studying the effects of metal oxide nanoparticles on human lung cells. “In their typical coarse powder form, the toxicity of these substances is not dramatic,” says Huang. “But as nanoparticles with diameters of only 16-80 nanometers, the situation changes significantly.” After exposing human lung cells to oxide nanoparticles, the nanoparticles’ toxicity to the cells increased as they moved right on the periodic table. According to Huang, about 80% of the cells died when exposed to copper oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles.
Huang is furthering his research to see if the nanoparticle’s toxicity can be reduced by coating them with non-toxic nanoparticles. The professor hopes that the toxicity can be mitigated without compromising the nanoparticle’s intended applications.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the molecular scale. Nanoparticles were first developed by German scientists in 1984 and research in nanotechnology has been rapidly expanding ever since. Unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale, which is what makes nanotechnology so intriguing to scientists. For example, when aluminum foil is reduced to nanoparticles, they explode, making them potentially useful when added to fuel. Scientists hope to use nanotechnology in the future to improve drugs and gene therapy by carrying them to the right place in the body and targeting specific tissues. Patients may one day drink fluids containing nanobots programmed to attack and reconstruct the molecular structure of cancer cells and viruses. Nanobots could even be programmed to perform surgeries, working at a level a thousand times more precise that the sharpest scalpel.
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