Nanotechnology is one of the most exciting frontiers in medicine, renewable energy and agriculture. According to Research and Markets, the worldwide nanotechnology market could be worth approximately $174 billion by 2025, after expanding at an 18.1 percent compound annual growth rate between 2016 and 2025. Its emerging applications in these three industries, and many others, should sustain significant investments in related technologies, creating numerous jobs along the way.
Nanotechnology today and tomorrow: A look at key applications
While the future applications of nanotechnology are definitely promising, there are already a wide array of products and services that utilize nanomaterials. The term “nanotechnology” is often associated with futuristic advances in medical technology and chemistry, but its use cases are much more subtle and widespread than that, encompassing everyday innovations such as:
- The composite materials within plastic bottles, which are safer, better insulated and cheaper to manufacture than some types of glass.
- The lithium iron phosphate batteries frequently included in devices such as rechargeable power tools; they have higher power densities and superior safety profiles compared to more common designs using lithium cobalt oxide.
- The nanoparticles incorporated into some articles of clothing for the reduction of static, prevention of sunburn and resistance to both stains and water damage.
- The key ingredients in skincare and cosmetic products for enabling deeper delivery of vitamins to slow the aging process and possibly enhance appearance.
- The stretchable gold that allows for the fabrication of flexible circuit boards capable of fitting into cutting-edge devices, such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and aerospace equipment.
With these current uses in mind, where can nanotechnology go from here? The next phases in nanotech are likely to broaden its reach in the treatment of diseases (especially cancer), in addition to the improvement of renewable energy sources and agriculture. These efforts are undoubtedly heavy lifts, but nanoscientists have already begun work that could lead to major breakthroughs.
For example, death rates from the four most common cancer types have steadily declined since peaking in 1991, but more progress can still be made. Nanotechnology may offer a new path forward for effective cancer treatment. Similarly, it may be the best route for extending current gains in solar energy capture and storage, as well as food production, processing and packaging.
1. Cancer treatments and medications
The three core cancer treatments are chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. This trio has been instrumental in saving millions of lives from early cancer-related death, but they all have distinctive limitations, especially when it comes to their precision in targeting individual cells. In other words, they often damage healthy tissues while failing to completely eradicate cancerous ones.
Enter nanoparticles for chemotherapy delivery. Researchers from multiple universities have explored the use of these particles for delivering medications. A group at MIT combined the drug Doxil with an RNA interference therapy and coated the combo with hyaluronic acid to ensure survival within the bloodstream.
The use of nanotech may also be beneficial for earlier detection and diagnosis of cancer. For example, a nanodevice might help capture proteins associated with cancer, along with circulating tumor DNA and exosomes from tumors. More efficient detection can increase the chances of multi-year survival, pending proper treatment.
2. Renewable energy infrastructure, especially solar cells
The prices of solar cells have been falling for years, leading to a rapid expansion of renewable energy infrastructure. Between 2008 and 2017, the price per watt of a solar panel installation fell from $8.82 to $3.36 – a decrease of more than 60 percent.
However, solar still accounted for only 1 percent of electricity production in the U.S. in 2016 and was dwarfed by other renewables, not to mention non-renewables. To increase its market share, it needs even better affordability compared to cheap non-renewable sources such as natural gas. Nanotechnology can help on this front by providing:
- Better light absorption.
- More efficient conversion of light to electricity.
- Improved storage and transport of solar energy.
More specifically, nanoscopic structures made from gold and magnesium fluoride may be the key to the development of thermophotovoltaic cells, which in theory are much more efficient than conventional solar technology. They can harvest energy even in the dark via infrared radiation and emit their heat within specific spectral ranges, instead of equally in all directions across a broad range.
3. Agricultural production and food processing
Food demand is set to continually increase as the global population keeps growing. The earth’s human population quadrupled between 1915 and 2015, surpassing 7 billion. An additional 2.4 billion people could be born by 2050. A 2013 study in Agricultural Economics projected food demand would surge between 59 percent and 98 percent by then.
Agriculture will need to scale to keep pace with these changes and ensure consistent access to healthy and safe foods. Fortunately, nanotechnology has many possible use cases in agriculture, from farming to food packaging.
- Nanocapsules might enable improved delivery of fertilizers and pesticides. Plant and animal pathogens might also become easier to detect with nanosensors.
- In packaging, nanoparticles might be used to resist heat and light-related spoilage and block contaminants.
- Coiled nanoparticles could even be incorporated into foods to increase nutrient absorption without affecting color or taste.
Is a career in nanotechnology a good fit for you?
We have only scraped the surface of the potential impact of nanotechnology in the coming years. Cancer research, solar panel production and agricultural innovation will all be key areas for nanotech, and so will clothing design, cosmetics manufacturing and many others.
An online master’s degree in engineering from the University of California – Riverside can prepare you for a career in nanotechnology, through a specialization in materials at the nanoscale. You will learn how to design, synthesize and process nanostructured materials, while also exploring topics in crystal structure and microelectrochemical systems.