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Feature Story | Argonne National Laboratory

Ask a scientist: Nanotech in our lives

Is there nanotechnology already in my consumer products?

Carrado Gregar: I just saw a report that named 1,628 products using nanotechnology…so I’d say yes, definitely!

When you say nanotech, a lot of people are thinking of tiny machines or robots. There is a long way to go before that becomes reality. But simpler nanomaterials are very much in common use.

Technically, nano” means the structures are between 1 and 100 nanometers in one dimension. (That’s about how much your fingernails will grow while reading this.) They’ve been in some paints and cosmetics for years. For example, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles are a common ingredient in sunscreens. That’s because the individual particles absorb UV radiation. And silver nanoparticles are in some toothpastes and shampoos because of their antibacterial properties.

Carbon nanofibers are used to reinforce plastics in sporting equipment such as composite tennis rackets and baseball bats. Nanotechnology in this way is useful because it be as light as plastic, but stronger.

Finally, nanotechnology principles have been used in clothing and textiles as waterproof coatings — the kind that repels moisture and stains. In fact, one company based their technology on the nanomorphology of the lotus plant leaf. If you zoom in on the leaf’s surface, you see microscopic spikes covered in even tinier wax crystals that repel water.

In terms of tiny machines — right now we’re only at micromachines, which are three orders of magnitude larger than nanomachines. Those are quite commonplace. Micromachines are in the sensors that trigger the airbag in your car, for example. There’s a big push to get us to the next level, but it’s a huge engineering challenge to have moving parts that small. It’s one of the initiatives where I work, at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne.

Katie Carrado Gregar is a nanoscientist and the user/outreach programs manager at the Center for Nanoscale Materials.

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This story was originally published in volume 8, issue 1 of Argonne Now, the laboratory’s semiannual science magazine.