Multi nanotube A multi-nanotube. © T. E. Dorizinksi, 2009

Royal Society University Research Fellow Thierry Maffeis

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is engineering at the nanometre scale – that’s 1 billionth of a metre. It involves fabricating structures and devices where at least one dimension is less than 100 nanometre.

What is it used for?

The cosmetics and food industries routinely use passive nanomaterials in their products – for example zinc and titanium oxide nanoparticles increase UV absorption in sunscreens. Nanotechnology is also widely present in microelectronics, with transistors in computer chips only a few tens of nanometres. However, the most anticipated applications are in the healthcare industry, where engineered nanostructures could be used for smart drug delivery and diagnostic imaging.

How does it work?

The fundamental properties of materials start to change below 100nm and nanotechnology exploits the new properties which appear at this scale - for example gold nanoparticles are red and melt at a much lower temperature than “bulk” gold. The scale also makes it easier for nanomaterials to pass through biological barriers without triggering the immune system - this is why it will prove an incredibly useful tool for healthcare applications but also raises concerns about safety.

Is it safe?

The effect of engineered nanostructures on human health is being intensively studied, but will require many years of research before nanotechnology is deemed safe. Nanotechnologies will need to be developed responsibly and, ideally, regulated by the government. However, emerging technologies are always accompanied by safety concerns and we are already constantly exposed to nanoparticles - mainly produced by car exhausts. The amount of manufactured nanomaterials is absolutely tiny compared to these by-products.