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Questions & Answers

What is a nanometer?

A nanometer is a one-billionth of a meter; 10-9 meters.

1 m = 1 000 000 000 nanometers

1 mm = 1 000 000 nanometers

1 μm = 1 000 nanometers

1 nm = 0.001 μm = 0.000 001 mm = 0.000 000 001 m

What is nanoscience?

Nanoscience is a science at a very small scale: the nanoscale. At the nanoscale, ranging from 0.1 to 100 nanometers (from the atomic radius to the wavelength of far-ultraviolet light), the basic constituents of matter are found, including the most primitive biological structures: the DNA, the ribosome, and the virus. But it is not just the size that matters. The behavior of matter at this scale is very special. The objects that we find at this scale are typically larger than a single atom (we could have a good number of atoms and molecules), yet at the same time they are small enough for their properties to be significantly different from the properties found in the micro and macroscales. Furthermore, physics and chemistry are often no longer distinguishable at this scale and classical disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, and materials engineering converge, giving rise to this new discipline: nanoscience.

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology deals with the design and production of new structures by controling their form and size within the nanoscale.

How can we understand the world on a quantic level when this is so different to the laws we intuit in the microscopic level?

The behavior of matter in a quantic level, which is explain by quantum mechanics, is totally different to the behavior of the tipical fenomena we can observe in our daily experience and, therefore, it is very difficult to intuit.

During some lectures at Cornell University (USA) given by the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman in 1964, he stated that "I think that I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics" 1.

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1 Feynman, Richard (1965). The Character of Physical Law. Modern Library.

This question was sent to nanoGUNE in the framework of the 10alamenos9 festival.

What are the risks of releasing such tiny particles into the environment?

Various entities have proposed different definitions of what a nanoparticle is. Considering that the limit between ‘micro’ and ‘nano’ generally sits at 100 nanometres (nm), it’s safe to say that a nanoparticle is a particle which measures less than 100 nm in its three dimensions.

The answer to this question depends on the type and diameter of the particle in question, and the environment into which it is released. This is nothing new, however. We already know about asbestos — a material that is harmless when compacted, but that can release fibres known to cause lung cancer — and the polluting soot nanoparticles which come from diesel exhaust pipes.

Although the combination of chemistry and diameter is nothing new, the variety of substances and diameters is. Researchers from across the world are trying to identify the most ‘urgent’ industrial nanoparticle candidates so that their toxicity can be studied before their use becomes more widespread. This is one of the reasons behind so much research into zinc oxide, a substance found in paints, mobile phones and sun creams.

In short, we don’t know the risks posed by many systems, but exhaustive research is already under way into those already on the market1 or expected imminently. Whilst many will be completely harmless, others could be highly toxic, and some could show mixed results with regard to the environment or organisms they come into contact with. We therefore agree with the authors of Los riesgos de la nanotecnología that “the possible benefits of nanotechnology require control over its risks, and we must work tirelessly on this in the scientific community, in collaboration with other tiers of society.”2

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1 Before work began to classify nanoparticles, there were already products on the market which contained such substances. In fact, nano-scale particles can also be found in the natural environment.

2 Los riesgos de la nanotecnología. ¿Qué sabemos de? (The Risks of Nanotechnology. What Do We Know?), M. Bermejo and P. Serena. CSIC and Los Libros de la Catarata, 2017.