Small is powerful. Technology has always involved the manipulation of materials for our benefit, and now we are learning to do it on a microscopic scale. Nanotechnology is the range of sciences now growing up around structures the size of molecules or even atoms. There are implications for medicine, physics and engineering, among many others.
The technology is still young, with only a few hundred nano-engineered products publicly available on the market. Nanoscale devices are used to improve drug delivery, so the drug targets those cells in the body where it can do most good. Companies are developing nanobatteries which can improve on conventional battery re-charging times. There are even now sun creams based on nanomaterials.
Cardiff University has been in the forefront of this emerging technology. In the 1990s, research by Professor Ruth Duncan, of the School of Pharmacy, led to the first clinical evaluation of polymer-based nanomedicines designed to treat cancer and this interdisciplinary work continues at Cardiff today. Cardiff also recently hosted the first-ever advanced training event on the application of nanotechnologies in medicine, attracting delegates from more than 30 countries.
Nanotechnology also offers great potential in sustainable energy. Researchers at the School of Physics and Astronomy are investigating promising new extremely thin materials which could convert solar energy to electricity more efficiently than existing photovoltaic cells. They are also looking at the conducting properties of single molecules – the ultimate in miniaturisation.
The Wolfson Nanoscience Laboratory in the School of Chemistry is carrying out research on a wide variety of nanoparticles. Along with colleagues from the School of Pharmacy, they are looking at silver particles which might have potential for the destruction of bacteria such as the hospital ‘superbug’ MRSA.
Nanotechnology is at the heart of one of the University’s successful spin-out companies. Q Chip, founded in 2003, exploits work done in the School of Engineering on microfluidic microsystems, which can control, measure and deliver gases and liquids in tiny amounts, with applications in the pharmaceutical and diagnostic markets.
Tiny materials and devices require remarkable precision in their manufacture. Here the University’s Manufacturing Engineering Centre has made great advances, working with partners in industry to develop new fabrication techniques on the nano- and micro- scale. One of the most remarkable developments is a new industrial lens, based on the eye structure of a moth, which is highly sensitive to light and has manufactured parts less than one ten-thousandth of a millimetre in height.
Any novel science creates new ethical dilemmas and fears. This has been particularly true of nanoscience, which has been fertile ground for science fiction tales of runaway nanorobots. However, a recent study by the School of Psychology and their colleagues in California found a different picture in the public imagination. This was the first public engagement exercise conducted in two countries and revealed that people in both the UK and the US are optimistic about the future promise offered by nanotechnology, particularly in medicine and energy.