When someone hears the words nanoscience or nanotechnology many people think about the secret laboratories of a mad scientist controlled by governments, where robots very, very small are developed to be injected in our blood to control us from the inside. That is, the miniaturization of macroscopic structures.
Nanoscience researches the physical, chemical or biological properties of atomic, molecular or macromolecular structures, or what is the same, the structures that have a size between 1 and 100 nanometres. One nanometre is equivalent to 10-9 m or 0,000000001 m.
The study of nanoscience and the development of nanotechnology presents a lot of advantages to us such as the development of encapsulated medicines in molecules that can release its active component only where it is needed. This is the case of the treatment of patients with cancer because it could be possible to release the treatment only in the areas affected by the tumour instead of affecting other body tissues. Another example is the study of materials whose electrical conducting properties are better or even to try new methods to transmit information through materials, which, at least one of its dimensions is within the nanometric scale.
Maybe the most famous material developed in nanoscience is the graphene. In fact, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were awarded with the physics Nobel Price because of their experiments with graphene.
To obtain materials at a nanometric scale, one of the most important ways of doing it, is to use techniques coming from the chemistry, because it can be used the properties that have atoms and molecules to bond together to create nanometric structures.
But the question here is if the miniaturization of macroscopic structures to nanometric scales can be considered as nanoscience or nanotechnology. The answer is no. In fact, not everything is nanoscience or nanotechnology and there is a set of six principles or precepts about what this emergent branch of science is.
First precept: Bottom-up building approach
This implies that miniaturizing, that is, to reduce the size of something is not nanoscience. To use the fundamental building blocks, that is atoms and molecules, and from there, to use their properties to build nanometric structures that could perform specific functions is indeed nanoscience.
Second precept: Cooperation
It does not deal with the fact that diverse institutions cooperate amongst them to develop nanostructures, which is also important, but the development of different nanostructures with different functionalities that cooperate amongst them to give rise to more complex nanodevices with better functionalities.
Third precept: Simplicity
To simplify the problems that faces the nanotechnology developments so that only the necessary scientific laws are used to avoid unnecessary complexities.
Fourth precept: Originality
Coming back to the example of the robot at the beginning of this post. It is avoided to develop things that already exist and simply reduce their size. What it is looked for are different structures. To reduce the scale has more implications than one could think, such as the fact that the volume depends on a cubic length and the area on a squared length, making a scale reduction unfeasible. Thus, it is necessary to be original and creative with the developments.
Fifth precept: Interdisciplinary nature
Previously we mentioned that the cooperation between institutions was also important, but it is even more important the cooperation between different areas of science. For this reason, the cooperation between biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers is more than needed. In nanoscience, the fact that a researcher is a pure physicist, chemist or biologists does not provide a complete knowledge because it has to face problems that will not solve unless the knowledge field is widened.
Sixth precept: Observation of nature
Nature offers us a lot of examples of nanotechnology. Molecules that make up our tissues and organs, as well as how they are organized and interact amongst them, are the best example of nanotechnology. If we observe and study them our developments will be much more innovative, efficient and will improve our lives.
It is complex to find examples that follow all these precepts simultaneously but that is why science and scientists exist, to develop nanostructures following these precepts using the laws that nature imposes.
El nanomundo en tus manos. Las claves de la nanociencia y la tecnología. José Ángel Martín-Gago, Carlos Briones, Elena Casero y Pedro A. Serena. Editorial Planeta S.A. Junio 2014