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What Are Nanomaterials?

November 3, 2022 - Ellie Poverly

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What comes to mind when you picture manufacturing materials? For most, it’s warehouses full of raw supplies — iron and steel, glass and plastics stacked to the ceiling and beyond, ready to be converted into anything you could imagine. They don’t see the minuscule components that often make everything possible. That’s where nanomaterials come in. What are nanomaterials, and where can you encounter them in daily life?

What Are Nanomaterials?

Google defines nanomaterials as “a material having particles or constituents of nanoscale dimensions,” but that doesn’t explain much. What are nanomaterials?

Experts can’t agree. As of this writing, there isn’t a universally accepted definition for these minuscule materials, but they must have a few things in common. Nanomaterials, as their names suggest, are defined by their size. One nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter or around 100,000 smaller than a strand of human hair. Nanomaterials need to have at least one dimension that’s smaller than 100 nanometers. 

This broad definition means that most nanomaterials are too small to be seen with the unaided eye. We can observe nanoparticles that occur in nature, but again, you will need a microscope or another tool to spot them. Some may even be too small to spot with standard laboratory microscopes. Engineers usually design nanomaterials with a specific characteristic in mine. Some are designed to be insulating, while others are conductive. It’s also possible to include nanomaterials as a component in existing designs to increase strength or reduce chemical reactivity, among a thousand other uses. 

Examples of Nanomaterials

We can break nanomaterials down into four types to make them a little easier to quantify. These include: 

  • Inorganic-based nanomaterials, including metal and metal oxides
  • Carbon-based nanomaterials, including graphene, fullerene and carbon nanotubes
  • Organic-based nanomaterials include organic materials that exclude carbon-based materials.
  • Composite nanomaterials include any combination of the three types mentioned above. 

In addition to being used individually, nanomaterials can be combined with other substances to change their properties or improve specific characteristics. 

Using Nanomaterials in Daily Life

Where might we use nanomaterials in our daily lives? The answer might surprise you, though there are some applications that you may never encounter unless you work in particular fields. The carbon-based nanomaterials we mentioned above, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes, all find their way into electronics. In pharmaceuticals, nanomaterials can carry and deliver medications within the body. 

In cosmetics, you’ll often find nanomaterials that include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. You may even find some cosmetics that include gold or silver nanoparticles. These precious metals have potent antibacterial and antifungal properties. Titanium dioxide and gold and silver nanoparticles are also often used in food processing and packaging. 

Nanomaterial coatings appear in a variety of industries. Suspended silver nanoparticles make mirrors, while other nanoparticles could be used to create anti-corrosive coatings on iron or steel to prevent oxidation damage over time. The applications for this technology are nearly limitless. 

Dangers of Nanomaterials

The identifying characteristic of nanomaterials — their size — also creates risk when working with them. These materials may be entirely benign when you encounter them in the world. Still, at a nanoscale, it becomes possible and even likely that you will inhale some of these materials or absorb them through your skin or mucous membranes. 

Research shows that inhaling fibrous carbon-based nanomaterials can create the same damage and irritation we’ve observed in patients exposed to asbestos. These inhaled particles can also carry dangerous chemicals or pollutants with them. Some scientists are concerned that exposure to nanomaterials can create ‘free radicals’ within the body that can lead to cellular and DNA damage over time. There is also a risk that these particles, once introduced to the bloodstream, could cross the blood-brain barrier. 

We can mitigate these risks by utilizing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirators designed to filter out nanoparticles from the air and other appropriate gear. 

Building the (Tiny) Future

There are nearly limitless applications for nanomaterials in everything from manufacturing to cosmetics to food production. We’re only limited by our imaginations. The next time someone asks you, what are nanomaterials, you’ll have the answer handy! 

Revolutionized is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commision. Learn more here.

Author

Ellie Poverly

Ellie Poverly is a science writer specializing in astronomy and environmental science and is the Associate Editor of Revolutionized. Ellie's love of science stems from reading Richard Dawkins books and her favorite science magazine as a child, where she fell in love with the experiments included in each edition

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