Business Irish

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Size does matter, but it's so tiny you can't see it

Sarah McCabe

THERE is a massive global industry built around the study of things we can't see.

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of the tiny molecules of matter, is a rapidly developing science that is influencing everything from medicine to computers.

The size of the particles involved in nanotechnology is measured in nanometres, which are one-billionth of a metre, smaller than the wavelength of visible light and a hundred-thousandth of the width of a human hair.

Using these particles for human benefit is far from science fiction and is already making a difference in the products we use every day. Sun cream is a common example.

Tiny nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide is used in modern sun cream because it is less visible than the larger molecules used in older formulas, meaning it leaves no whitish tinge on the skin after it is rubbed in.

Scientists are also using nanotechnology to enhance clothing.

By coating fabrics with zinc oxide nanoparticles they can create materials that give better UV protection.

Other fabrics use nanoparticles in the form of tiny hairs that help repel water and stains.

SURFACES

Engineers have also discovered that adding aluminum silicate nanoparticles to scratch-resistant polymer coatings makes these surfaces stronger, increasing their resistance to chipping and scratching.

The scratch-resistant coatings are used in everything from glasses lenses to cars. Nanoparticles have even been used to develop antibacterial bandages.

Coating bandages with tiny molecules of silver smothers harmful bacteria.

These discoveries can be highly lucrative for the companies who capitalise on them, so the science enjoys lots of industry-backed funding.

Ireland has marketed itself as a global hub for nanotechnology research.

In 2003 the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) was established in Trinity College with just six researchers working with four companies.

Ten years later, it has made 50 patent applications and has more than 300 researchers working with 100 companies, supported by €50m worth of funding.

CRANN says Ireland is now the sixth most important location for nanotechnology research in the world, which should lead to an extra 20,000 manufacturing jobs by 2016.

Several Irish companies were early adopters of the technology. Drug company Elan uses it to improve medicines that have poor solubility in water, manufacturing nanotechnology compounds at its Athlone plant.

The reception to the science has not all been positive. Some groups have expressed concern about the unintended consequences of nanotechnology and the risks it poses to human health.

Regardless, the industry is growing at a rapid pace; CRANN estimates it will be worth €2.5bn by 2015.

Irish Independent

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