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Nanotechnology: from tennis balls to sunscreen

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First coined by Japanese scientist Norio Tanaguchi as far back as 1974, the term nanotechnology has moved from purely conceptual, through science fiction, and into the everyday in the intervening years. Often used as a tool for corporate innovation, it now has a range of everyday applications and uses, many of which you may never have heard or thought of.

Nowadays, a glance at the ways nanotechnology is used in practice shows that it’s all around us.

What is nanotechnology?

The National Nanotechnology Institute defines nanotechnology as “science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale”, which they conclude to be between “1 to 100 nanometers”. To put that into perspective, a strand of human hair is between 80,000 and 100,000 nanometers wide. Yes, that’s how small a scale on which this tech is operating!

The ability to control and manipulate material at an atomic level now allows us to take advantage of certain materials’ properties in various sciences, as well as in a range of industries, including healthcare. And its practical applications are spreading fast.

Current nanotechnology applications

Nanotechnology can now be found all around us, sometimes in the last products you may expect. A major current use is in sunscreen, which contains nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that absorb damaging UV light and help to avoid skin cancer. 

Nanotechnology has also been used in tennis balls, providing a gas barrier that allows the balls to perform at an optimal level for a longer period of time. In turn, this improves their longevity, making them better for the planet as well as your tennis game!

These are specific examples, but the tech-transfer possibilities of nanotech extend to many other aspects of our lives.

Cosmetics

Those same nanoscale ingredients that are found in sunscreen can also be added to cosmetics, producing products that are longer-lasting and deeper-penetrating.

Clothing

Silica nanoparticles can be added to clothing, waterproofing it so that water droplets simply roll off. Nano-titanium dioxide can also be added to clothing to make it anti-bacterial, a particularly useful quality for sports- and gym-wear!

Personal tech

Without nanotechnology, much of the tech we use every day without really thinking about it – personal computers, mobile phones and video games consoles, for example – simply wouldn’t look like or work as they do. Nanotech plays a role in faster processing and greater memory storage in smaller spaces, allows batteries to be smaller and thinner, and can be used to improve charging efficiency.

Medical

Nanotechnology can already be used in early detection of cancer, among other medical applications. And nanotechnology developments offer significant potential in imaging techniques, diagnostic tools, drug-delivery systems, tissue engineering and pharmaceutical therapeutics.

With pharmaceutical giants already working on ways to develop so-called ‘electroceuticals’, the science fiction trope of invisible machines working inside the human body to repair damage, attack cancer cells or even control organ function may become fact sooner than you think.

What’s next for nanotechnology?

It’s not just in medicine where scientific and entrepreneurial eyes are already turned to the future of nanotechnology. With practical technology transfer examples of nanotech already in widespread use, it’s inevitably going to play an ever-greater role in every aspect of human society. 

Climate change

Though nanotechnology has already been put to the task of tackling climate change – in the creation of batteries for electric cars, for example – there is yet greater potential in the part it could play in battling an issue that’s front and centre of the entire world’s attention right now.

As well as nanomaterials’ enormous capacity for the storage and transport of clean energy fuels, and the lightweight nature of nanomaterials making them greener to transport in the first place, they can be engineered to sequester greenhouse gases through adsorption.

They can store oxygen to promote complete combustion, reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emission. And nano-based coatings can be used to reduce friction and wear in engines, making them last longer, reducing fuel consumption by up to 2% and lowering carbon emissions.

Nanotechnology and scientific entrepreneurship

In terms of tech-transfer possibilities, nanotech’s applications are really only limited by the imagination of the innovators working on it. What is deep tech, after all, if not the result of imaginative technologists, scientists and business people working together?

Just as deep tech has found a wider place in its practical applications, nanotech is already in the mainstream. National Nanotechnology Day is celebrated in the United States every year to raise awareness of the benefits of the technology, show the general public how ubiquitous it is, and demonstrate the impact it’s making on our lives already. To separate fact from science fiction, in short.

Science fiction has shown us some pretty hair-raising visions of nanotech’s capabilities! Most of them, of course, are fanciful and likely to remain that way. But it’s certainly true that, in addition to the practical questions – ”How should I formulate my business model?” or “How can I go about licensing my technology?” –  nanotech entrepreneurs need to think about some deeper implications.

The speed that nanotechnology is developing obliges the inclusion of ethical questions posed by some of its possible applications in entrepreneurial research and development. Questions that go way beyond how long you’re going to use the same set of tennis balls. But nanotechnology is fertile ground for modern entrepreneurs, 

Lean Launchpad

What is Lean Launchpad? If you’re going to create a spinoff into business from nanotech research, for example, it’s the ideal start-up methodology. It recognises the differences between 21st-century entrepreneurship and the old, outdated models for launching a business. 

Dedicated to identifying the needs of the target audience as early as possible to secure success, it’s a model which perfectly fits many nanotech entrepreneurs’ needs. It offers creative ways to test and structure ideas in building products that satisfy existing customer demands, so can find areas where nanotechnology, for example, can effectively fill opportunities in any market.

Conclusion

If you’re going to invest in deep tech as part of a start-up initiative, nanotechnology’s enormous potential stands in stark contrast to the microscopic size of the tech itself – it’s going to change the world as we currently know it.

The Collider focuses on leveraging deep tech to make a positive impact on society at a global scale, by producing a space where exciting tech-transfer initiatives can connect with researchers, entrepreneurs and investors. Powered by Mobile World Capital, we aim to promote society’s digital transformation, while improving people’s lives.