Welcome to Engineer Academy where we’re exploring an A to Z of Engineering – everything from acoustics to zoos.
In each episode, we spin the wheel to find out what type of engineering we’ll be exploring with the help of Engers, our engineering expert.
You can listen to the full series of the A to Z of Engineering here.
Let’s take a look at Nanotechnology Engineering.
Now, when you think of engineering, you might think massive structures like bridges and tower blocks – or space rockets exploring the solar system.
But there’s a branch of engineering that, well, likes to do things on a smaller scale – working with some of the tiniest building blocks of all – and that’s nanotechnology.
Nanoscience, the science behind nanotechnology, involves studying the application of things that are between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. To give you an idea of how small this is, a human hair is one hundred THOUSAND nanometers wide. Nanotechnology is about altering materials at this most basic level, creating new materials and even designing micro-machinery. Let’s zoom in with Engers to find out more.
You might be wondering – well, HOW can anyone work with materials at such a small scale? The answer is by using microscopes and manipulator technology that’s designed to pick up and move very tiny things around.
Now, not all microscopes are the same.
Light microscopes – which you might have at school, are good at seeing things as small as say bacteria – but a single bacterium is still several hundred nanometres wide. And did you know, light has a width of between 500 and 800 nanometres, so we can’t use light to see things smaller than that.
Electron and atomic microscopes are therefore used to see very small objects. These powerful microscopes don’t rely on light but feel the object and create an image.
Let’s take a look at some of the amazing developments made possible by this exciting technology. First up – Body Armour.
Now, body armour isn’t just for the battlefield. It’s essential for police and security officers. Traditional body armour disperses a weapon’s force across a larger area than the point of impact, preventing it from penetrating the wearer’s body. But a large amount of energy still transfers through – causing bruising. Engineers have found that introducing nanoscale carbon tubes into Kevlar materials is a way to prevent blunt force trauma.
A cool area of nanotechnology is in medical equipment like bandages. These are normally applied to protect wounds from further contamination, but engineers are using nanotechnology and incorporating certain metals known as noble metals, which have natural antimicrobial properties, into bandages to help combat infections. You might be wondering what metal has to do with healing a wound – but take silver. Silver disrupts the growth of bacteria by blocking its metabolism, and engineers have developed ways to create bandages with silver nanoparticles woven into them. These bandages are commonly used to dress injuries that would otherwise be resistant to treatment and prone to infection, like burns.
Nanotechnology isn’t just about creating new materials – it’s even in the food we eat! Nanoscientists are developing techniques to precisely tailor the smallest particles of food to provide a specific taste, texture or nutrient density. For instance, if a company wants to make its mayonnaise thinner, it could replace a portion of the fat content of each particle of mayonnaise with water.
Nanotechnology is ALSO at the forefront of mechanical engineering – things like Circuit Boards and Robots can be made at the nano level to carry out complex processes. A magnetoelectric nanorobot invented by Prof. Soutik received the Guinness World record for the smallest robot. His amazing creation at just 30 nanometres wide can enter the human bloodstream to deliver drugs at the cellular level.
Another interesting way nanotechnology is making a difference is with climate change. It’s being used to improve sustainability and access to natural resources with inventions such as molecular water filtration and self-cleaning materials. It can also help clean up air pollution and greenhouse gases with nanotech catalysts that removes carbon dioxide from the air and reconfigures it into chemicals we can use in industry. Pretty amazing right?
Nanotechnology really does reach into almost every part of our lives making a difference to our environment, the products we use and even our health.
And that’s our take on the letter N – I’d say we NAILED it!
If you would like to check out some other types of engineering, why not check out Nuclear, Natural Gas or Naval engineering!
Join us again next time to spin the wheel and explore another letter in the A to Z of Engineering!