It helps keep your food fresher, your skin moisturized, your clothing stain-free, and your tennis balls bouncy. Nanotechnology is a relatively new science, and many consumers aren’t aware that its applications can be found in many everyday items. According to Nano.gov, more than 800 commercial products incorporate nanomaterials. Here are just a few examples.
FRESHER, SAFER FOOD
It’s likely that nanotechnology has protected you from food poisoning. For two decades, scientists have been working on ways to keep food fresh and safe for longer periods of time. Warding off foodborne pathogens is key. To that end, food manufacturers around the world are using plastic packaging made with polymer-based nanomaterials that can detect and in some cases eliminate salmonella, pesticides, and other contaminants found in meat and other foods before they hit store shelves.
The plastic storage bins used to transport food are often lined with silver nanoparticles that kill bacteria from the previously stored food. And some types of packaging contain nanoparticles that keep oxygen out so the food doesn’t spoil as quickly.
Researchers at the Technical University of Munich recently developed a liquid mixed with carbon nanotube–based sensors that can be sprayed onto plastic packaging. The tiny sensors detect spoiled food based on small changes in the concentrations of gases it gives off, including ammonia, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. When the sensors are developed for sale, they will be linked to a wireless device that will alert store employees to discard the spoiled food, the researchers say.
Nanotechnology can also help keep carbonated beverages from going flat. Nanocomposites are embedded in plastic bottles to minimize carbon-dioxide leakage, extending the drinks’ shelf life.
TOOTHPASTE AND COSMETICS
Nanotechnology has entered the world of dental care as well. Some brands of toothpaste contain nanoparticles of the calcium-based mineral found in bones to fill in microscopic cracks in dental enamel and help keep teeth cavity-free. And because silver atoms can slow down or eliminate the growth of bacteria, some toothpaste is made with silver nanoparticles to battle tooth decay.
Nanotechnology also abounds in pharmacies. According to the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University, in England, the cosmetics industry holds the most patents for nanoparticles worldwide.
Several antiaging lotions and creams employ nanotechnology. Cosmetics giant L’Oréal, for example, says it has developed a polymeric nanocapsule that delivers active ingredients deep into layers of skin. L’Oréal and other manufacturers also use nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to create vivid and metallic shades of lipstick and eye shadow. Similar nanoparticles are used in several brands of sunscreen.
The next time you spill red wine onto a stain-resistant carpet, you can thank nanotechnology for helping you avoid a permanent splotch. Carpets and clothing with stain-resistant finishes are made with nanotextiles that prevent the absorption of liquids. Coffee, wine, and other substances that might otherwise leave a permanent stain instead bead up so they can be wiped away.
Waterproof clothing is another example of nanotech’s reach. Schoeller Technologies of Sevelen, Switzerland, has found a way to combine nano and nature to mimic the way plant leaves shed water.
Lotus leaves, for example, have a rough surface composed of tiny waxy spikes that cause moisture to bead up and slide off. Schoeller has developed a fabric treatment called NanoSphere that adds nanoparticles to the fabric surface, allowing clothing to shed water like a lotus leaf. Garments treated with NanoSphere have an uneven texture that leaves less surface area available for water absorption.
Advances in nanotechnology have made sports equipment stronger, lighter, and more durable.
Tennis and badminton rackets are made with carbon nanotubes, which make them lighter and more powerful. Certain classes of nanomaterials have contributed to lighter golf clubs by lowering their centers of gravity, which can help golfers swing with more accuracy and propel the ball farther. Graphene oxide and “buckypaper” (sheets of carbon nanotubes) are incorporated into canoes and racing boats to improve their glide through water while making them stronger and lighter. And ultrahard nanoceramics are used to sharpen the edges of ice skates.
Nanomaterials can also make sports equipment last longer. Footballs and tennis balls are made with nanoclay to withstand impact and increase bounce. Fullerenes, a type of nanomaterial that helps prevent chipping and cracking, can be found on bowling balls and kayaks. And carbon nanoparticles are used in racecar tires to decrease rolling resistance and extend their useful life.
By AMANDA DAVIS