Nanoengineering is the contriving of materials and techniques at a very minute level: the nanoscale. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. This is incredibly very small scale and particles at this scale exhibit different characteristics; be it color, electrical conductivity or even the boiling point. For example, gold exhibits green color at micrometer and red color at nanometer making it a very crucial component in nanoengineering research. Nanoengineering has witnessed vast advancements over the past few years, making it an indisputable frontier of modern engineering.
In essence, it encompasses every facet of human life, creating solutions in areas such as biomedicine, computational modelling, electronics, energy systems, material science, manufacturing and environmental science. The possibilities are just boundless! Nanoengineering offers a fundamental, holistic and multidisciplinary approach to science bringing together all engineering disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics and technology.
Nanoengineering is asserting itself as a force to reckon with in the medical arena. Already, several techniques are in use, others are at the trial phase while the rest are at the concept stage of development.
Scientists, delved into fully fledged research, are churning out journal articles almost daily, in a bid to come up with novel solutions to problems embattling the medical field. One common application of nanoengineering in medicine is the use of nanoparticles to deliver drugs, light of specific wavelength or even heat to targeted cells such as cancer cells. The specificity of nano materials has a host of advantages in drug delivery systems. For instance, it improves the ability to deliver drugs that have poor solubility, enhances long drug retention in the body and protects the drug from biological environment thus enhancing its bioactivity.
Very recently, in an effort to come up with novel ways to treat cancer, Zhao together with fellow researchers, reported on the synthesis of DNA nanoparticles for tumor targeted and pH responsive drug delivery. The major highlight of their work was that the resultant nanoparticle exhibited appreciable standards of biostability making it an ideal material for in vivo application for tumor-targeting chemotherapy. The scientists further developed new and simpler fabrication process that proved less costly hence providing hope for development of cheaper and biostable nanoparticles for human treatment regimens. Nonetheless, breakthroughs are being experienced in this field of research as CytImmune Sciences has developed a nanotherapeutic drug, Aurimune, that targets tumors while delivering a range of anticancer therapies. It is important to note, that this particular drug has completed phase one of the clinical trial and plans are at an advanced stage to start the phase two of the clinical trial. This goes along way to show that without any iota of doubt, nanoengineering is the Trojan horse when it comes to the fight against the scourge of cancer.
Through nanoengineering, scientists have been able to investigate the use of nanoparticles to deliver vaccine. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, via in vivo tests, are investigating on how the nanoparticles can be used to protect the vaccine, giving it ample time to trigger a stronger immune response. In the same vein, Fuaad together with coworkers have reported on the development of vaccine against hookworm parasite using lipopeptide nanoparticles. This study centered on epitope and delivery vectors design forming a solid basis for the development of the vaccine against hookworm. However, chronic challenges remain prevalent in this field of research due to a lack of cardinal understanding of the in vivo behavior of nanoparticles, which can act either as an immunostimulant ancillary to activate or bolster immunity and/or as a delivery system to enhance antigen processing.
The applications of nanoengineering in medicine are vast. These applications range from drug delivery, nanovaccines, gene delivery, nanopowders to nanorobotics. Nanoengineering has revolutionized techniques used in diagnosis, therapy, cell repair and antimicrobial approaches. For instance, in coming up with versatile diagnostic techniques, Osaka university scientists led by Arima , have been able to combine nanopore sensors with artificial intelligence methods that can be able to single out virus particles with pin point accuracy. Nanoengineering has drastically changed the way diagnosis and treatment is carried out.
The first computer to be invented occupied almost 1800 square feet and weighed a whooping fifty tons! Fast forward to current times, a computer can fit comfortably on one’s palm. This salient change in size over the years can be attributed to nanoengineering. Notably, a consortium of several researchers drawn from Microsoft, Georgia Institute of Technology and Tokyo university invented a way in which electrical circuits could easily be printed using inkjet printers. Their technique, dubbed ‘instant inkjet circuits’, allows the printing of conductive traces on suitable material using silver nanoparticle ink. Silver nanowires have also been used to develop versatile sensors. Yao and Zhu, researchers based at North Carolina State University developed wearable multipurpose sensors that that could be used by the military, athletes or general medical purposes. These sensors have the capability to measure pressure, strain, feel human touch or even take electrocardiograms.
Disruptive technology caused by nanoengineering cannot be wished away in the electronics industry. Bendable and flexible electronics have taken the market by storm. This has been achieved by the use semiconductor nanomembranes. An optical switch that can oscillate between ON and OFF states by moving a single silver atom has been developed! The future can only be brighter because the possibilities of nanoengineering in electronics are just limitless. A case in point; researchers at Tampere University are exploring novel ways of designing quantum dots: building of logic circuits through integration of photosensitive organic molecules into minute particles of a semiconductor. The resulting logic circuit does not consume any current. Ideally, nanoengineering offers a possible future of electronics without current!
According to International Energy Agency, global energy demand rose by 2.1% in 2017, more than double the previous year’s rate. With the global population burgeoning, coupled with rapid urbanization, energy demand is projected to grow tenfold in a few decades. Nanoengineering is offering an alternative energy platform to help meet the ever-increasing world energy demand. Researchers at Rice University are investigating the use of films of carbon nanotubes to develop high-powered, very fast charging batteries to replace the common lithium-ion batteries. The resulting lithium metal battery holds about ten times the amount of energy by volume compared to the current lithium ion batteries. In the development of better fuel cells, researchers at Berkeley Lab have demonstrated that graphene together with magnesium nanocrystals have the capacity to store hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells. Nanoengineering also plays a crucial role in the oil and gas extraction. In prevention of corrosion, nanoengineering has been applied by the use of nanomagnetic fluid, formulated through dispersion of ferromagnetic nanoparticles in carrier fluid. This technique has been proven effective in reducing the rate of corrosion of carbon steel especially in acidic environments.
Other notable applications of nanoengineering in the energy sector include: the development of highly efficient light bulbs, using waste heat to generate power by the use of nanotubes to build thermocells that produce electricity, making highly effective windmills, drastically cutting the cost of solar equipment, enhancing power transmission through cutting loses in the power lines and greatly improving the existing technology used in battery manufacturing.
The future of our environment is bleak. With heightened human activity that degenerate and pollute the environment with abandon, its incumbent upon the scientists to come up with effective and applicable methods to curtail or halt the wanton destruction of the environment by human civilizations. Nanoengineering gives a glimpse of hope in saving the environment. Researchers have demonstrated the use of nanoengineering to get rid of volatile organic compounds from the air. Anil K. Sinha, a pioneer researcher in this field, reported on the use of highly porous manganese oxide on which gold nanoparticles are grown. Using toluene, hexane and acetaldehyde as the organic pollutants, Sinha reported on the effective removal of these organic pollutants from the air. Nanoengineering has also been employed in the cleaning of oil spills. Gouma, a professor of material science at the State University New York, developed a catalyst capable of breaking down hydrocarbons in water without contaminating the water. The nanogrid consists of metal grids made of a copper tungsten wires that when illuminated with sunlight, it can degrade oil from a spill.
Inasmuch as nanoengineering plays a very crucial role in manufacturing, medicine, environment and energy, pertinent questions are being raised on the synchronization of operational principles and ethics. Are there sufficient and concrete regulations and laws enacted to protect the populace from harmful inventions? What is the moral imperative of scientific innovations such as gene editing? Or rather, what can happen if nanoengineering in medicine reverses the aging process in humans? What will be the consequences of such inventions to humanity or the economy? These are the salient and succinct questions that should be reflected upon by all stakeholders as the world gears towards ‘a life of nanoengineering’. Gladly, several groups have sprouted with an aim of addressing the ethical issues posed in nanoengineering. Such groups include: Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), Latin American Nanotechnology and Society Network, Focus Nanotechnology Africa (FONAI) and The international Council on Nanotechnology among others. With such noble initiatives, nanoengineering will operate within a framework that will ensure prosperity for humanity.
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