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Nanotechnology – a science under discussion

Tokay feet view from the bottom
A tokay gecko can be up to 40 centimeters long – and yet it can cling easily to a smooth wall. This is possible because its feet are covered with adhesive pads measuring only a few nanometers which can nestle perfectly into any tiny niche of the surface.

For many years, nanotechnology has been considered a science of unlimited possibilities. These tiny particles and structures enable materials with exceptional properties to be produced. They can, for example, help to make plastics both lighter and more stable, or to make high-gloss coatings scratch-proof. They can also be used to develop new medicines. But, at the same time, there is some doubt. Critics see a risk that nanoparticles will get into human cells or the environment – and warn that there has not yet been sufficient research into this technology.

There are big expectations for these new materials. The starting material, on the other hand, is extremely small. One nanometer is just one-millionth of a millimeter. In comparison: A human hair has a diameter of around 100,000 nanometers. Thus the origin of the word nanos, which is derived from the Greek word for dwarf.

Nanostructures are nothing new in nature. They give geckos and flies their ability to adhere to surfaces, provide the dazzling colors in a butterfly’s wings and create the lotus flower’s self-cleaning effect. People have also been utilizing the benefits of nanomaterials for a long time – even though they might not have known it. The glowing red color in church windows, for example, is created by gold nanoparticles. Research on the synthetic production of nanoparticles has been conducted since the 20th century. The breakthrough was achieved in 1981 with the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by physics Professor Dr. Gerd Binnig and Dr. Heinrich Rohrer. This device enabled scientists to see individual nanostructures and understand nano-scale phenomena.

Proponents from the worlds of business and politics believe nanotechnology will be one of the strongest drivers of innovation that will help solve the challenges society faces in the future. Nanomaterials can filter water and make it potable again, they can reduce the exhaust emissions from cars and they can help fight cancer.

Yet there are concerns about some other applications. Experts do not consider products which contain nanostructures or bound nano­particles, such as paints and coatings, to be problematic. However, sprays are a different story because they contain unbound nanoparticles. If these are inhaled, they could be harmful to health.

Nanotechnology - experts share their view

Professor Dr. Wolfgang M. Heckl, head of acatech, the topic network on nanotechnology of the German National Academy of Science and Engineering and Jurek Vengels, nano expert at BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany), discuss the pros and cons of nanotechnology.