Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Smoke, Mirrors and Nanotechnology

By Andrew Stapleton

Alternative health practitioners are quick to offer a variety of untested therapies. Nanotechnology is yet another in the list.

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The term “nanotechnology” conjures images of extremely tiny robots that are swallowed, treat people from the inside and then self-destruct into excretable components. Unfortunately, reality falls short of that expectation.

Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary research field that attempts to manipulate the nanoscale structure of a material. “Nano” is a prefix meaning one-billionth. To put that in perspective, a “nano” of the distance between Sydney and Melbourne (716 km) is 0.72 mm or about the thickness of a human fingernail. Imagine trying to manicure someone’s fingernails from the international space station while they sit on Earth – that is the equivalent of what nanotechnologists try to do.

Common sense rarely wins in the nanodomain. Strange and unexpected properties of otherwise uninteresting materials are regularly reported, and seem to offer just the right combination of the fascinating and counter-intuitive that proponents of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) need to sell nano-related products.

Nanotechnology has genuinely contributed to everyday commercial products; Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nano­particles in sunscreens absorb UV light. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles have also been used for light-activated self-cleaning of cotton fibres, so you never have to worry about being a messy eater, and self-cleaning in electronic...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.