Real Life

What is nanofication?

Why the science and design of small is becoming big news.
Tiny nano particles are key to new products and new ways of living, including clothes and windows that clean themselves.

The science

Very few of us know what the word means, but by the time you sit down to read this article, you’ll have been exposed to some form of nano technology. It’s tiny and it’s everywhere, as Michelle Dickinson, senior lecturer of engineering at Auckland University and member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, explains. “You couldn’t have got up this morning without touching something nano. It’s all around us; we just don’t really know about it.”

The word ‘nano’ is generally misused to describe something small but, according to Dickinson, the specific definition is “anything that has one dimension of 10 to the power of minus 10 of a metre is a nano” or, in thankfully simpler terms, “a thousand times thinner than the width of your hair”. It’s small, and it’s powerful.

A nano particle is chemically reactive, easily manipulated and invisible to the naked eye. The possibilities are endless, and for scientists like Dickinson, they’re just getting started.

It was a love of Star Trek, specifically the Borg alien species, that sparked an interest in nanotechnology in Dickinson. Twenty years later, she’s leading the field when it comes to nano materials – and breaking them.

“I make machines and design systems that destroy nano materials – because how do you break things you can’t see or hold?” As a result, she gets to play with – and then break – the “coolest tech” before anyone else gets to see it. So what does the future of nanotechnology hold for us as consumers? There’s good news, and bad news.

Michelle Dickinson leads the field in nano science.

A nano-filled future: From short to long term

Your clothes will clean themselves: “Most of my clothes are coated in nano particles, so I don’t have to wash them and they repel water.” Dickinson sprays her clothes with silica particles, which she jokes is “a terrible way” to do it, but the results speak for themselves. In one of her instructional YouTube videos, she pours chocolate sauce all over her white dress then just shakes it off. “Right now it’s crazy to think of self-cleaning cashmere, but you’ll only buy self-cleaning items very, very soon.”

Your windows will wash themselves: All new high-rise buildings now have self-cleaning windows, making the perilous job of cleaning them a job of the past. A nano-layer of titanium dioxide uses UV rays from the sun to break down dirt, then when it rains the dirt washes off. Dickinson believes the technology will soon move to new builds for homes too. “There’s going to be a lot of secret tech that just makes things a little bit easier to maintain.”

Your kitchen table will charge your phone: “We’re going to look back and say, ‘I can’t believe we had cables,’” says Dickinson of the wireless induction technology that is on its way into the mainstream. Starbucks already has tables with induction mats and both Samsung and IKEA are rolling out tables and moveable mats with wireless charging capabilities. “You don’t ever have to plug anything in – you come home, chuck them on the table and they’ll start charging.”

Your home will create its own energy: “I work a lot with the paint companies here on nano particles in paint. Ten years from now, you can put gold nano particles into paint, so you can paint your roof with solar panel paint. Every surface that has access to the sun you can now charge from,” says Dickinson. “Every house will have its own battery storage place you can charge your car on, and that you can charge your house on.”

Your fridge will buy its own groceries: “Your fridge will have a chip in it that tells you when you’ve run out of milk. It’ll link up to a supermarket, who will then email you and say, ‘Do you want a delivery of milk?’”

Can nano help fight cancer?

Where things get murky with nanotechnology is with the risk of liability. Nanotechnology has been shown to work on reducing cancerous tumours in animals, but there’s very little leeway when it comes to trialling it on humans.

“If you put something into a patient, you have to be able to prove you can get it out,” Dickinson explains. But the tiny scale of nano particles makes this impossible. Dickinson can prove the body harmlessly excretes most of it, but not all. It’s a frustrating hold-up that is preventing major breakthroughs, Dickinson believes.

“We know what protein a cancer cell emits, so we can stick something on that’s only attracted to that cancer cell. We can make nano particles glow, we can make ones that heat up when you shine a light onto them and they kill whatever they’re attached to.”

Words by: Emma Clifton

Photographs by: Emily Chalk, Thinkstock Images and Supplied

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