Small Things with BIG Impact

When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, he said that it was “a small step for man and a giant leap for mankind”. Today, this new “giant leap” may be represented by the advancement of “small steps” in nanotechnology – a rapidly developing area of science regarded as a portal to a new world, where small structures create tremendous impact. Nanoscience is the study of the properties of materials with dimensions at the nanoscale, which is roughly from 1 to 100 nanometers (about one thousandth the thickness of a human hair). Nanotechnology is the application of these materials into useful nanodevices. But, what is so special about the nanoscale? Materials can have different properties and functions at the nanometer range – some have better conductivity, unique magnetic properties, superior strength and interesting optical behavior. Nanomaterials also have significantly larger surface areas than bigger objects with similar volumes, providing more surface for interactions with other substances. This had led scientists to create ultra-fast computers, cancer-targeting drug delivery systems, and a lot more. Overall, working at the nanoscale allows scientists to create products that tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. It is not surprising that today, government agencies and business sectors continue to demonstrate interest in and support for nanotechnology due to what many perceive is its exceptional potential for delivering economic progress, high-wage jobs, and a host of other societal benefits. Yet like any new emerging technology, nanomaterials carry with them both positive and negative impacts. The same unique physical and chemical properties that make nanomaterials so attractive may be associated with their potentially detrimental effects. Present studies are not sufficient to provide toxicity information about these nanomaterials, which can lead into unforeseen occupational hazards and environmental issues. This multifaceted aspect of nanotechnology results in complex problems that will need equally diverse and complicated solutions. Although these innovations have sparked a flurry of inventions that created positive outcomes in our everyday lives, it is also paramount that potential negative effects arising from these developments be identified. Extensive research on the societal implications of nanotechnology will allow the benefits to be greatly realized and appropriate steps to be taken in order to avoid unintended consequences. The word “nano” may just be a little word, but it has created such a seismic shift in almost every aspect of science, with implications for economics, ethics, public policy and environmental safety. This course will explore the convergence of various disciplines that nanoscientists draw information from, and how these different sectors contribute to nanotechnology advancement. We will aim to answer enduring questions such as: (1) how will nanotechnology improve human lives now and in the long-term; (2) what are the present challenges and ethical dilemmas that accompany nanotechnological developments; and (3) what are the good and bad impacts of engineered nanomaterials. Students will gain a variety of perspectives about the benefits and risks associated with nanotechnology and how today’s innovations will shape our future. After all, the next big thing may actually be really, really small!