By now, you have probably already heard about one of these three big fields of our time: polymer science, computer science and nanoscience. One would think that many readers might be unaware of the presence of a nanoscience institute here at Virginia Tech, let alone the impacts that it has on our individual lives. Many new technologies, such as computers or even medical devices, are based on the findings in nanoscience by institutes such as Virginia Tech. It seems our path is clear in taking advantage of the increasing popularity and funding of this field. Making sure that we expand our current nanoscience field at home will ensure the continued presence of the university abroad, along with contributing to future innovations. We must also be aware that this field also has its own inherent dangers, such as lung damage and other health risks. Investing more resources into understanding the nanoscience field will greatly improve the prestige of Virginia Tech and mitigate potentially negative aspects.
Nanoscience is described as the usage and application of extremely small particles, ranging from one to 100 nanometers, with new or improved properties. Its applications range from drug development to imaging. Certain computer chip circuits could be made of carbon nanotubes to use less power, while some nanoparticles improve absorption of drugs within the body. In the past, Virginia Tech has won the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI) spot, which helped link it with other universities and concentrate on different areas of interest within nanoscience. None of this innovation could be possible without the aid and funding of others interested in expanding nanoscience.
With the federal government heavily investing in new nanotechnology, with an estimated $1 trillion of products containing nanotechnology, taking the initiative to expand areas in this field is imperative. One area of interest is nanotribology, the study of friction, wear, adhesion and lubrication at the nanoscale. This area could help us understand friction on a more fundamental level and could have important applications in industry. In fact, it is estimated that up to €970,000 million could be saved in the industry in the long run by implementing new tribological advances, along with lower petrol usage and carbon dioxide emissions. Nanoparticles can also act as an alternative to some of the very toxic additives in engine oils.
Assistant Professor Vinh Nguyen in the College of Science, whose interests include nanoscale systems and biomaterials, said, “It is a far-off dream to expand our current nanoscience program to include a masters and PhD program.” Expanding our current bachelor’s program in nanoscience to have a higher level pathway would go a long way in attracting prospective students.
One must also note that there are risks associated with this science, and that we should assess them going forward. Lung damage seems the most pressing concern at this point, with tests showing that some types of nanoparticles kill lung cells. In an MIT Technology Review interview with science advisor Andrew Maynard, Maynard said that fine particles “can enter the lining of the lungs and get through to the blood and enter other organs.” While these dangers seem scary given the fact that we cannot see them, it is important to note that strides are being made to counteract this. Currently we have a center for sustainable nanotechnology called VTSuN, which specializes in earth nanosystems, engineered nanosystems and sustainable nanomanufacturing. A focus on sustainable and safe products, with the education and training of new researchers, will hopefully create a bridge between nanoscience and environmental initiatives.
Nanoscience is a noble initiative that requires deeper understanding in order to fully assess its impacts. We at Virginia Tech should expand our programs in this field to become a hub for future innovation. While some dangers do loom over this field’s expansion, overall it seems that it will be more of a benefit to us as a society and Hokie Nation.