Welcome to our blog, where you can keep up-to-date with the latest P2i news and developments. We will post articles regarding news, events we attend, speaker presentations as well as explaining the nanotechnology industry.

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Friday, 21 December 2012

Merry Christmas & A Happy New Year!

Did you know that the song 'We wish you a Merry Christmas' is from 16th Century England and has its origins in English tradition where wealthy people offered treats to carolers on Christmas Eve? Neither did we, till we looked it up but is quite interesting though.

With Christmas day only a few sleeps away, we will be closing our office until 2013 but want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

But before we leave you, we have put together a special Christmas message together in the style of our Repellent Files. Hope you enjoy it!

See you in 2013...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Splashes & Spills - No Worries!

Has your phone ever been splashed with water or other liquids? If so, the reaction to this is always one of dread, as smartphones are not designed to mix with water in any of its forms.

There are many solutions out there that aim to prevent phones from a watery grave. For example, putting the device in a bowl of rice, but these methods are optimistic at best and in most cases the end result is still not good.

Smartphones have become such an important part of our everyday lives that there are very few scenarios left where phones do not accompany us. In fact, in a recent survey, 19% of people interviewed admitted to having dropped their phones down the toilet!

All is not lost though, as protection from water damage is now available in the form of the Alcatel ONE TOUCH 997 Ultra smartphone.

The 997 Ultra repels water
Understanding the role smartphones play in today's society, Alcatel have teamed up with P2i to offer consumers a completely water repellent phone and reduce the fears they have when phones and liquids meet. To do this, the ONE TOUCH 997 Ultra comes complete with our nano-coating technology which is applied to both the external and internal surfaces, ensuring total protection from water damaging effects. You can see how our coating is applied to smartphones below:

As the coating is incredibly thin (1000 times smaller than a human hair), it does not interfere with the internal electrical conductivity, allowing all components to be treated, leaving no weak points to attract water and cause corrosion. This is great piece of mind should the 997 Ultra come into contact with water.

When launching the onetouch 997 Ultra, Alcatel mobile's theme is 'No Worries' and with the benefits our water repellent nano-coating offers, the concerns over everyday splashes and spills, or being caught in the rain, are becoming a thing of the past.

You can watch the technology in action below in the official Alcatel video and if you would like to know more details about the 997 Ultra, you can here.

Splashes, spills and rain.... No worries with the ONE TOUCH 997 Ultra!


* The water repellent nano-coating applied by TCL, protects the internal components from water ingress and corrosion damage, caused by accidental splashes and spills. The coating is not a waterproof technology and TCL does not recommend that your phone comes into contact with liquids.

Friday, 14 December 2012

2012 - A Year in Review

2012 has been a busy year here at P2i and with 2013 only a few weeks away, we take a look back at some of our more exciting highlights.


The first month of 2012 saw us attend two very different tradeshows. For the second year in a row, we exhibited at International CES in Las Vegas which was also a milestone for P2i, as we announced that over 8 million consumer electronics devices had been protected from water damage with our nano-coating technology. You can find out more about how we got on at CES here.

In addition, we also attended ISPO in Munich, Germany to promote our ion-mask™ technology to lifestyle brands, where we were delighted to announce that the technology had been applied to over 3 million pairs of shoes.


Did you know that more than half of all mobile phone users expect devices to be water-repellent? In research carried out by P2i, mobile phone users from the UK, France, Germany, Spain and the US also admitted to using their devices in the rain, shower and sauna. Read all about the findings here.

February also saw our return to Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona where we were also interviewed by The Fonecast. In preparation for MWC, we also produced a brand new video to explain how our coating is applied to electronic devices. You can watch this video below:


At AudiologyNow2012! we were delighted to be crowned Best of Show for the second year running, an award that was made all the more special as P2i was the first company to win this award in consecutive years. You can see our award and booth here.

Ever wondered what the difference between waterproof and water repellent electronics is? In our post from the 21st March, we look at the differences in more detail.


In April, we attended two tradeshows for the first time, World Filtration Congress in Graz, Austria and NEPCON in Shanghai, China ,as well as featuring on NewsWatch TV hosted by Scott Steinberg.

Finally, we were delighted to announce our partnership with leading headwear brand Kangol, who have applied ion-mask™ to a range of their iconic hats. You can watch our technology in action on Kangol hats below:


Our busiest month so far!

With the London Olympics just around the corner, P2i teamed up with UK Sport to protect equipment and accessories in cycling and sailing, two of Britain's leading sports. We also attended CTIA Wireless in New Orleans, USA and started our series of blogs entitled: A Brief History of Nanotechnology, which charts the early beginnings of nanotechnology through to the present day (you can find the series by searching our blog).

Do you know what happens if you apply our coating to normally water absorbent items? Well in May we created The Repellent Files to find out. You can see all our experiments so far which include Mentos & Diet Coke, sponges and coffee granules on P2i.TV.

To top off an excellent month, we were crowned Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012 by the Best in Biz Awards 2012 EMEA.


While June went by a little more quietly, July was certainly a month to shout about, winning not one but two industry awards! At OutDoor 2012 in Friedrichshafen, Germany our collaboration with Trekmates was recognized as the DRY Mountain Lite Mitt featuring ion-mask™ was awarded the Industry Award in the Accessories category.

And at the same time, the Global Business Excellence (GBE) Awards were being held in London where we were acknowledged by winning the Outstanding New Product/Service award.


Both August and September continued where July left off with more awards coming our way. In August, we were again awarded the title of Most Innovative Company in Europe by the International Business Awards (Stevies) and in September we were listed in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 list. The list highlights the top-performing private companies and we came 27th!


How waterproof are consumer electronics? That was the main topic of our blog in October. We also announced our exclusive partnership with Plantronics to protect cutting-edge Bluetooth devices, including the Voyager Legend headset.


Did you catch Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature on BBC One? If you did, you will have seen that we were featured! In the first episode entitled 'Super Bodies', Richard Hammond explored how nature has inspired human technological developments and how the wings of the Morpho butterfly produce the same water-repellent effect as our technology. The series will be on DVD from next year but images and more information from the show can be seen here.

November also saw the official launch of our partnership with Alcatel Mobile (TCL), where our coating has been applied to Alcatel's flagship model, the ONE TOUCH 997 Ultra. Watch the video below:

Last but not least, it was time to answer another frequently asked question: How small is our coating?


There are exciting projects in the pipeline but you will have to wait to find out what. We also have a host of activity planned for 2013, so watch this space...

If you would like to know more about our technology, visit or alternatively you can ask us a question in the comment box below.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

An Update on Events

It has been quite a long time since we updated you about our presence at tradeshows, events and conferences. This post seeks to rectify that.

So far this year we have showcased our technology for electronics at CES 2012, Mobile World Congress 2012 and AudiologyNOW! as well as ISPO and EU OutDoor, where we amazed delegates with the benefits of our ion-mask nano-coating.

This week we are demonstrating the benefits of both technologies. In London, on the 4th December we had a stand within the Stuff Zone at Trends Plus 2012. The event which is in its second year, acts as a forum for ideas, creativity and blue-sky thinking and attracts delegates in marketing, advertising as well as new product developments.

You can find out more about our presence at Trends Plus here.

Setting up our stand

Demonstrating the repellent properties of our coating at Stuff Zone
Coinciding with Trends Plus is The Running Event taking place in Austin, Texas and is the premier expo for speciality retailers. If you are attending the show, we can be found at booth 1425, where we are demonstrating our ion-mask technology to a wide range of audiences. You can find out more about The Running Event here.

Our Running Event booth
More images from the event will be posted on our Twitter and Facebook accounts and you can keep up to date with what events and tradeshows we attend by visiting

Thursday, 29 November 2012

How small is small?

If you have visited, seen our collateral or even watched our videos then you will be aware that we refer to our technology as 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. Which is pretty small, but exactly how small is small?

In this post we will look at how small nanometres really are, as well as posting some interesting facts.

What is small?

The word nano originates from the Greek word for dwarf, but today, the term nano more commonly refers to anything that is 'incrediblly small' or to be precise - one billionth (10-9) times smaller than a metre.

To put this into perspective the smallest object visible to the naked human eye is a single strand of human hair, anything smaller than that and we need the help of microscopes to see them. And even more sophisticated and expensive microscopes are required before building blocks such as hydrogen atoms become visible. In fact, you would need to line up 10 hydrogen atoms in a row just to equal one nanometre!

Powers of Ten:

To measure size, either large or small, the calculations required to do so are done in powers of ten, as you can see below:

To get our heads around this subject in a more understandable way, in 1997 a video was produced which takes the viewer on a journey of magintudes. Called Powers of Ten, the video is still very influential today. Every 10 seconds the viewing point starts from ten times further away, eventually reaching the edge of the known galaxy. At this point we then return to Earth at the same speed, ending inside one of the smallest objects visible; a carbon atom. It is a great representation of scale in comparasion to our own size as human beings and you can watch it below:

More recently, a modern version of this video has been produced narrated by Morgan Freeman which you can see here:

Some interesting facts:

We have all heard of red blood cells and DNA, but have you ever wondered how small they actually are? Below are some of these objects and their relative size:
  • Grain of Rice =  1 Millimeter
  • Red Blood Cell =  5-7 Microns in length (5000 Red blood cells would fit into 1 inch)
  • DNA = 1 Micron
  • Common Cold Virus = 0.0001 Micron or 75-100nm wide
Did you know that the average human finger nail grows at around 1 nanometer(nm) per second? And if your were able to strech a meter a distance of 1690 miles (roughly the same distance as Melbourne to Perth in Australia), a nanometre would only be the size of a parecetol or asprin tablet.

So as you can see, when we talk about the nanoscale, we are working in incredibly small dimensions.

P2i's nano-coating technology:

It is amazing to know that so much activity is going on, on scales of size that are sometimes hard to comprehend.

Our coating, which is measured in nanometers is molecularly bonded to products surfaces inside and out, offering superior liquid repellency. As mentioned earlier, the coating is 1000 times thinner than a human hair and invisible to the naked eye, in fact it is so small that it does not change the look or feel of the surface it is applied to.

You can find out more about our technology here as well as seeing how it is applied in the following video:

As always, if you have any questions about nanotechnology or our coating, just ask.

Monday, 19 November 2012

To Repel or not to Repel? That is the Question!

As you know we have been experimenting with our water repellent coating to discover if it can turn normally water absorbent and dissolvable items into repellent ones.

So far we have published 11 different Repellent Files including:
  • Berocca
  • Coffee
  • Sponges
  • Sugar Cubes
  • Mentos (& Diet Coke)
If you have not seen what happens when a pack of Mentos are dropped in Diet Coke, get on YouTube and have a look, it is worth it.

Each week we look to publish a new video on our YouTube channel, but if you have any suggestions of products or items you would like to see featured in the Repellent Files do let us know in the comment box at the end of this post and who knows you could see your suggestion feature in one of our videos!

You can watch all the Repellent Files we have posted so far below and remember to check out our channel, Twitter and Facebook accounts for the next instalment this Friday.

Case #1: Teabag

Case #2: Berocca Tablets

Case #3: The Biscuit Dunk

Case #4: Anyone for Coffee?

Case #5: Sugar Cubes

Case #6: Sponges

Case #7: Mentos & Diet Coke

Case #8: Newspapers

Case #9: Water Droplets

Case #10: A Water Droplets Journey

Hope you enjoyed watching them! If so, subscribe to our channel to be alerted whenever we put a new video up.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Headsets that work as hard as you do

In today's world, the relationship we have with our electronics has never been closer. From exercising in the gym or great outdoors, to work environments such as meetings and conference calls, electronic devices are everywhere to be seen.

We take for granted the reliability of our devices. We expect them to operate normally even in 'risky' locations such as being caught out in bad weather or during/after exercise where devices come into contact with our sweat and moisture.

In these conditions, devices can meet a premature end, as any form of liquid can cause damage and corrosion. And while the thought of water damage is not a pleasant one, help is at hand in the form of headsets from Plantronics.

Water, sweat, humidity and moisture all present a constant threat to headsets. Extensive regular use results in increased moisture build-up, which can either reduce performance or in the worst case, cause device malfunction.

Recognising the threat, Plantronics have incorporated P2i's nano-coating technology onto the new Voyager Legend™ Bluetooth® headset as well as the soon to be launched BackBeat® GO earbuds.
Plantronics Voyager Legend™ - Protected by P2i technology
With a thickness the equivalent to one thousandth that of a human hair, the coating does not change the look or feel of the headsets yet protects both the inside and outside of the products from moisture damage.

What this means to the wearer is that they can be confident the headsets will withstand the damage of everyday life. P2i's nano-coating ensures that liquids simply run off the headsets instead of getting inside and damaging the internal components.

Plantronics have produced a range of video around both headsets but you can watch the main Voyager Legend™ commercial below:

You can also find out more on the Voyager Legend™ and P2i's moisture protection here as well as details on the BackBeat® GO here.

We are very excited about this relationship and the response to the headsets has been very positive, with the Voyager Legend™ already receiving recognition, including the September Editor's Choice award from CNET.

Whatever challenges your day to day life presents, Plantronics Voyager Legend™ and BackBeat® GO® headsets featuring P2i's nano-coating moisture protection will meet them head on.

Find out more about our coating here:

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Butterfly Effect

If you live in the UK and happened to have tuned into BBC 1 at 9pm on Monday, you would have noticed a programme called Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature. If you missed it, the first episode entitled: Super-Bodies can be seen on the BBC iPlayer now (UK only).

But why highlight this you maybe asking? Good question. Well, the answer is quite simple, we featured in it from 45 minutes in :)

The show, which has three, one-hour episodes, follows Richard Hammond around the world as he takes a closer look at some amazing animals and how their natural abilities are inspiring new technological developments. In the show, we learn how the way a giraffe controls it blood pressure when bending down to drink has inspired the development of fighter pilot suits to combat the stresses of g-forces. In addition, did you know that a woodpecker's skull is teaching us how to develop more protective crash helmets - demonstrated in the show by dropping a light bulb from space in a protective casing designed to be like the scull of the woodpecker.

As the episode approaches its conclusion, attention turns to South America, in particular the rainforest, where a creature with a unique ability lives, the Morpho Butterfly.

The Morpho Butterfly - As seen of BBC 1s Miracles of Nature
So what makes this butterfly unique? As you can imagine, living in the forests of South America, it rains alot, and if only a fraction of water was to be absorbed into its wing, the result would cause the butterfly to be unstable as the water would make their wings heavy and flying impossible. However, the butterfly combats this with a clever adaption, its wings are totally water repellent, meaning that any rain drops that do come into contact with it, simply bead up and roll off. Sounding familiar?

In nature, there are many examples of animals and plants that have developed water repellent surfaces to ensure they stay dry - the lotus leaf being one particular example. And of course, we have all heard of the expression 'like water off a duck's back'? Which although has different connotations, does originally refer to the way a ducks feathers repel water, staying light and dry even when submerged.

How is it then that the Morpho butterfly, lotus leaf and feathers from a duck repel water so well? To answer that you need a microscope with significant zoom. While the wings on the Morpho butterfly look and feel smooth, when viewed on the nanoscale (x1000) it is clear that they are actually made up of millions of tiny ridges. Although we can't see it with the naked eye, these invisible ridges ensure that only the smallest amounts of water actually comes into contact with the surface, resulting in the water remaining in droplet/bead form and simply rolling off.

If you are familiar with our technology you will know that any water that comes into contact with our coating beads up and rolls off. There is however a difference as to how this roll off effect is created. Our technology is applied as a surface chemistry, meaning the coating is molecularly bonded to the surface of products given it a low surface energy in order to repel water. The butterfly however, has a natural surface roughness to its wings which creates an air-liquid interface which effectively lowers the surface energy and repels water. In nature this technique works well but the reason we use a surface chemistry over roughness is due to its durability. When a roughness coating is applied to man-made objects it is not chemically bonded to its surface resulting in the durability and repellency diminishing very quickly. Not a problem in nature as the butterfly can replace its surface when required but in man-made products, a surface chemistry such as P2i technology is a more effective and reliable option for repelling water.
We achieve this water repellency by placing complete products within a chamber where our coating is applied in a gas form, molecularly bonding to both the external and internal materials, altering their surface energy. The result: a completely water repellent product. You can see how our coating is applied to smartphones in our video below:

For Miracles of Nature, the BBC wanted to take it one step further and we were tasked with treating more unusual items, such as a newspaper, egg carton and an entire white suit. To see the results you will have to watch the show, it is worth it we promise, but below are some stills to give you a little teaser:

Water repellent newspaper
Water repellent egg carton

Hydrophobic suit (As seen on BBC 1s Miracles of Nature)
As a finale, Richard discusses a dilemma that a lot of us have perhaps experienced but never really spoken about... dropping our phones down the toilet. According to the show, 19% of us admitted to having suffered this first hand! And in the majority of cases the results have not been good, e.g. a broken and dead phone.
This however is no longer a problem, as Richard demonstrates by dropping a P2i treated smartphone down the toilet, retrieving it when a call comes through and answering it. This showcases that with our water repellent coating, smartphones and other electronics need no longer fear accidental splashes, spill and the dreaded drop down the toilet.
Do check out the show if you can and if you have any questions about our technology, don't hesitate to ask in the comment box below or you can also reach us on Facebook and Twitter.
We will leave you will a slow-motion clip of a smartphones meeting with water but don't worry this phone was treated!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Nano Nightmares

Nanotechnology, like genetically modified food or nuclear power, often produces a knee-jerk reaction. It’s somehow ‘not natural’ and so is considered scary and dangerous. This is primarily a reaction to words, the same way that it easy for advertisers to push emotional buttons with ‘natural’ as good and ‘artificial’ as bad.

This is a silly distinction. There is a lot in nature that is very dangerous indeed – and much that is artificial protects us from that. If you doubt this, try removing everything artificial when you are flying in a plane over shark infested waters. For that matter, many of the most virulent poisons like ricin and botulinus toxin are natural. Water crammed with bacteria and faecal matter is natural. Clean, safe drinking water from a tap is artificial. Yet we can’t help reacting like puppets when the advertisers use those magic words.

Some concerns about nanotechnology are down to what is at best futurology and at worst science fiction. Prince Charles infamously caused headlines back in 2003, when newspapers reported ‘The prince has raised the spectre of the “grey goo” catastrophe in which sub-microscopic machines designed to share intelligence and replicate themselves take over and devour the planet.’

Charles later denied ever meaning this, commenting that he never used the expression ‘grey goo’ and saying ‘I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction.’ But he certainly did express concerns that not enough was being done to assess and manage any risk associated with the use of nanotechnology.

Unlike the grey goo headlines, this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. The very nature of nanotechnology implies using substances in physical formats that our bodies might not have encountered, and hence we can’t make assumptions without appropriate testing and risk assessment.

If we are to be sensible about this, we need to first avoid a blanket response to nanotechnology. You would be hard pressed to find a reason for being worried about the impact of nanometer thin coatings, such as that used by P2i (sponsors of the Nature’s Nanotech series) There is a big difference between manipulating coatings at the nanoscale and manufacturing products with nanoparticles and small nanotubes.

We know that breathing in nanoparticles, like those found in soot in the air, can increase risk of lung disease, and there is no reason to think that manufactured nanoparticles would be any less dangerous than the natural versions. When some while ago the Soil Association banned artificial nanoparticles from products they endorsed, I asked them why only artificial particles. Their spokesperson said that natural ones are fine because ‘life evolved with these.’

This, unfortunately, is rubbish. You might as well argue it is okay to put natural salmonella into food because ‘life evolved with it.’ Life also evolved with cliffs, but it doesn’t make falling off them any less dangerous. There is no magic distinction between a natural and an artificial substance when it comes to chemical makeup, and in practice if there is risk from nanoparticles it is likely to be from the physics of their very small size, rather than anything about their chemistry.

There are three primary concerns about nanoparticles – what will happen if we breathe them, eat them and put them on our skin. The breathing aspect is probably the best understand and is already strongly legislated on in the UK – we know that particulates in the air can cause a range of diseases and have to be avoided. There is really no difference here between the need to control nanoparticles and any other particles and fibres we might breathe. Whenever a process throws particulates into the air it ought to be controlled. (And this applies to the ‘natural’ smoke from wood fires, say, which is high in dangerous particulates, as well as any industrial process.)

When it comes to food, we have good coverage from The House of Lords Science and Technology committee in a 2010 report. They point out that nanotechnologies have a range of possible applications in food that could benefit both consumers and industry. ‘These include creating foods with unaltered taste but lower fat, salt or sugar levels, or improved packaging that keeps food fresher for longer or tells consumers if the food inside is spoiled.’

The committee’s report sensibly argued ‘Our current understanding of how [nanoparticles] behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health. Persistent nanomaterials are of particular concern, since they do not break down in the stomach and may have the potential to leave the gut, travel throughout the body, and accumulate in cells with long-term effects that cannot yet be determined.’

Their recommendation was not to abandon these technologies, but rather that it was essential to perform appropriate research, preferably across the EU, to check the impact of such nanomaterials when consumed, and to ensure that all such materials that interact differently with the body from ordinary foodstuffs are assessed for risk before they are allowed onto the market. This seems eminently sensible.

The final area, applying nanoparticles to the skin, is perhaps most urgent, because most of apply them on a regular basis. Most sun defence products, and a number of cosmetics contain them. It is hard to find a good reason to allow for any risk in a pure cosmetic, and arguably they should be prevented from containing nanoparticles. But the story is more nuanced with sun creams.

Most sunscreens contain particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These invisible particles, ranging from nanoscale to significantly larger, provide most of the sunscreen’s protection against dangerous ultraviolet. What has to be weighed up is the benefits of using products to prevent a cancer that kills over 65,000 people a year worldwide – and would kill many more if sunscreens weren’t used – against a risk that has not been associated with any known deaths.

The potential for these nanoparticles to cause harm depends on them penetrating through the outer layers of the skin to reach cells where they could cause damage. In theory a nanoparticle is capable of doing this. But the current evidence is that the particles remain on the surface of the skin and do not reach viable skin cells. Skin cancer is a particular risk in Australia, so this is a topic that has been studied in depth there. As Cancer Council Australia concludes: ‘there is no credible evidence that sunscreens containing nanoparticles pose a health risk. There is plenty of evidence however, proving that sunscreen can help reduce the risk of skin cancer, in particular non-melanoma skin cancer.’

Overall, then, we should not be lax about nanoparticles and their effect on our bodies. We need careful testing and where necessary regulation. But equally we should not be swayed into knee-jerk reactions by emotional words carrying little meaning.

Written by Brian Clegg - Popular Science

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Catching a Cure - Nature's Nanotech (5)

Isaac Asimov was a great science fiction writer, but even the best has his off days, and Asimov’s low point was probably his involvement with the dire science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage. Asimov wasn’t responsible for the story, but provided the novelization – and he probably regretted it. The premise of the film was that miniaturization technology has made it possible shrink a submarine and its crew down to around 1,000 nanometres, sending it into a man’s bloodstream to find and destroy a blood clot on his brain.

Along the way the crew have various silly encounters with the body’s systems – but strip away the Hollywood shlock and underneath is an idea that has been developed in a lot more detail by IT pioneer and life extension enthusiast Ray Kurzweil. Based on the idea of miniature robotic devices – nanobots – Kurzweil believes that in the future we will not have a single manned Proteus submarine as featured in Fantastic Voyage in our bloodstreams but rather a whole host of nanobots that will undertake medical functions and keep humans of the future alive indefinitely.

As we have seen in The Importance of Being Wet, the chances are that any such devices would not be a simple miniaturization of existing mechanical robots with their flat metal surfaces and gears, but rather would be based on the wet technology of the natural nanoscale world.

Among the possibilities Kurzweil suggests are on the cards are self-propelling robotic replacements for blood cells (this eliminates the importance of the heart as a pump, and hence the risk of heart disease), built in monitors for any sign of the body drifting away from ideal operation, nanobots that can deliver drugs to control cancer or remove cancer cells, and even miniature robots that make direct repairs to genes.

Kurzweil also expects we might separate the pleasure of eating from getting the nutrients we need, leaving the latter to nanobots in the bloodstream that release the essentials when we need them, while other nano devices remove toxins from the blood and destroy unwanted food without it ever influencing our metabolism. You could pig out on anything you wanted, all day and every day, and never suffer the consequences. (Given Kurzweil is notorious for living on an unpleasant diet to attempt to extend his life until nanotechnology is available, perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

If we are to develop this kind of nanotechnology, there are two aspects of nature that we will need to use as guides. One is to listen to the bees. Bearing in mind just how small a medical nanobot would have to be, even with the best developments in electronics the chances are it would have to be relatively unintelligent – yet it would need to achieve quite complex tasks. Bees are an excellent natural model for a way to achieve this.

A colony of bees achieves remarkable things in the construction and maintenance of its hive – yet taken as individuals, bees have very little capacity for mental activity. The realization that transformed our understanding of bees is that they form a super-organism. In effect, a whole colony is a single organism, not a collection of individual bees. A bee is more like a cell in a typical animal than it is a whole creature. By having appropriate mechanisms for communicating between the component parts – in the case of bees, using everything from chemical scent markers to waggle dances – relatively incapable individuals can come together to make a greater whole.

It would be sensible to expect something similar from medical nanobots at work in a human body. Individually they could not be intelligent enough to carry out their functions properly – but collectively, if they can interact to form a super-organism, they could operate autonomously without an external control mechanism continuously providing them with orders.

A second model for these miniature medics is a piece of natural nanotechnology that we usually regard as a bad guy – the virus. Viruses are very small – typically between 20 and 400 nanometres in size – and they lack many of the essential components of a living entity. However they are able to reproduce and thrive by using a remarkably clever cheat. Lacking the physical space to carry all the components of a living cell, they take over an existing cell in their host and subvert its mechanism to do their reproduction for them.

The particular class of virus that may be particularly useful as a model for medical nanobots is the phage. These are amongst the weirdest looking natural structure – some have an uncanny resemblance of the Apollo Lunar module: they actually look as if they are the sort of nanotechnology we might construct.

The word ‘phage’ is short for bacteriophage – ‘bacteria eater’. These are viruses than instead of preying on human cells – or those of any other large scale animals – attack and destroy bacteria. Because there are so many bacteria out there (even the human body has ten times more bacteria than human cells on board), their predators are also immensely populous and diverse. Phages may not be common fare on David Attenborough’s nature programmes, but they play a major role in the overall biological life of the Earth.

Because phages attack bacteria, they can be beneficial to human life. Throughout human existence we have been plagued with bacterial infections. (Literally – bacteria, for example, cause bubonic plague.) It is only relatively recently that antibiotics have provided us with a miracle cure for bacterial attacks – but that miracle is weakening. Bacteria breed and evolve quickly. There are strains of bacteria that can resist most of the existing antibiotics. But phages have the potential to attack bacteria resistant to all antibiotics. For a long time phage therapy was restricted to the former Soviet Union, but interest is spreading in making use of phages in medical procedures.

The biggest problem with phages is getting them to the right place. But medical nanobots based on a phage’s ability to attack or modify particular cells, combined with a super-organism’s ability to act in a collective manner would have huge potential. Modified viruses are already used to insert genetic payloads into cells – but the nanotechnology of the future, inspired by the phage and the bee, could see something much closer to Kurzweil’s vision.

Moving away from the medical, and from individual nanoscale elements, in the next installment of Nature’s Nanotech we will see how natural nanotechnology plays a role in silk and how fibres based on a nanotechnology structure could make rockets obsolete for putting satellites into space.

Friday, 12 October 2012

How waterproof are consumer electronics?

If you are a keen follower of consumer technology, then you will be aware that there has been a steady emergence over the past year of smartphones and tablets offered complete with 'waterproof' protection. But just how waterproof are these electronics?

Gadgets form an essential part of our everyday lives and there are few places left where our smartphones and tablets do not accompany us. More and more people are taking their electronics into potentially hazardous locations, for example the bathroom or even worse, saunas!

What you may not realize is that even if the device is left in a 'safe' spot, these environments still pose a risk. Water takes many forms such as vapour, mist and steam, all of which can penetrate inside devices. If there is no barrier against ingress, then the vapour or steam can reach internal components, resulting in corrosion and phone malfunctions.

This principle is more commonly understood when dealing with water in its normal form, liquid. Should a device fall into, or be splashed with liquid, without a protective barrier in place, the liquid can penetrate deep inside the device, resulting in electrochemical migration. We have discussed electrochemical migration in a previous post but here is a recap:
  • Electrochemical migration is the movement of metal ions between conductors which results in devices short circuiting and failing.
Our everyday lives have resulted in a greater need for electronics that can withstand the effects of liquids in all their forms. This in turn has seen the latest smartphones and tablets being offered with a repellent or waterproof protection.

What makes electronics waterproof?

For an electronic device to be considered waterproof, it has to be either completely sealed and ruggedized (making them bulky), or alternatively it must have barriers in place that stop water from penetrating through. It is this second option that is proving more popular now, as it allows devices to offer protection from water without the need for external casings. In this approach, manufacturers use seals known as gaskets or O-rings to act as barriers, stopping liquids from penetrating inside the device and damaging the internal components.

So are they really waterproof?

This is an interesting question as devices can claim to be waterproof if they have barriers in place to keep water out, but what about the internal components themselves? Are they also protected should liquid manage to get inside?

The answer in the majority of cases is unfortunately NO. Sealing devices off does stop water from getting in but if the barrier is compromised, for example by a device being dropped, then the case, gaskets or O-rings protecting it can become damaged and break. This could allow water to seep  towards the circuit board and internal components, resulting in device failure and loss of data.

It just takes one break in the seal for water to get inside and if this does occur, it may not be noticed as seals are hidden away on the inside. So while we think our device is waterproof, a break in the seal will not become apparent until the phone is malfunctioning and by then it could be too late.

The importance of protecting the internal components

Knowing that waterproof devices are only as good as the seals and barriers that protect them, it is important that protection is also offered to the internal components as well. And this is where liquid repellent nano-coating technology comes in.

A liquid repellent nano-coating differs from a waterproof solution in that it is not a physical barrier, meaning that liquid can still penetrate inside the device. This, however, is not the end of the device's life. The nano-coating, which is applied in vapour form, molecularly bonds to both the inside and outside of the entire device, ensuring that each and every exposed surface is treated. What this means is that, although water can get inside the device, any liquid that does come into contact with components will simply move away from the surface, rather than sticking to it, resulting in reduced corrosion, electrochemical migration and failure.

While a nano-coating is not waterproof (it is not a physical barrier), it does protect from splashes and spills as well as less obvious 'wet' environments such as saunas, bathrooms and high humidity climates.

A waterproof device has many benefits for day to day life but if the barrier fails, the device becomes vulnerable. By applying a liquid repellent nano-coating to the internal components, protection is offered to the most valuable parts of electronic devices, where all our data, numbers and images are stored. Nano-coatings are not a waterproof solution but do offer protection against everyday scenarios and environments, we and our devices find ourselves exposed to.

If you would like to know more about our liquid repellent nano-coating do let us know in the comments below. You can also see how our repellent nano-coating is applied to electronics in the video below:

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Sunday Times Tech Track 100

2012 has been a very exciting year for us in terms of awards and to date we have been selected as winners of the following competitions:
And the good news does not stop there! If you purchased or read the August 16th edition of the Sunday Times (16th September) you will have noticed the Hiscox Tech Track 100 supplement within its pages. Tech Track 100 ranks Britain's top 100 private tech companies, based on the fastest growing sales over the last three years. Scrolling through the supplement you will notice that we are listed at number 27, a position we are extremely delighted with.

You can read more on our inclusion here and if you were unable to get hold of a copy you can see the complete list of entries by clicking the following link:

Continuing with the award theme, our success in the electronics sector continues to flourish as alongside our Tech Track listing we have also been recognised as a National Finalist for the European Business Awards.

However, in order to proceed to the next round and become a National Champion, our short video entry needs to receive the most votes. This is where we need your help. You can watch our entry and vote by clicking here. The results will be announced next month and we will update the results in the comment section below as well as on our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

If you do have a moment to vote for us that really would be appreciated. If you have any questions about these awards or would like to know more about our technology, just ask.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Importance of Being Wet - Nature's Nanotech (4)

Image from Wikipedia
The image that almost always springs to mind when nanotechnology is mention is Drexler’s tiny army of assemblers and the threat of being overwhelmed by grey goo. But what many forget is that there is a fundamental problem in physics facing anyone building invisibly small robots (nanobots) – something that was spotted by the man who first came up with the concept of working on the nanoscale.

That man was Richard Feynman. His name may not be as well known outside physics circles as, say, Stephen Hawking, but ask a physicist to add a third to a triumvirate of heroes with Newton and Einstein and most would immediately choose Feynman. It didn’t hurt that Richard Feynman was a bongo-playing charmer whose lectures delighted even those who couldn’t understand the science, helped by an unexpected Bronx accent – imagine Tony Curtis lecturing on quantum theory.

Feynman became best known to the media for his dramatic contribution to the Challenger inquiry, when in front of the cameras he plunged an O-ring into iced water to show how it lost its elasticity. But on an evening in December 1959 he gave a lecture that laid the foundation for all future ideas of nanobots. His talk at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society was titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and his subject was manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.

Feynman pointed out that people were amazed by a device that could write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. But ‘Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?’ As he pointed out, the dots that make up a printed image, if reduced to a scale that took the area of paper in the encyclopedia down to pinhead size, would still contain 1,000 atoms each – plenty of material to make a pixel. And it could be read with technology they had already.

Feynman went on to describe how it would be possible to write at this scale, but also took in the idea that the monster computers of his day would have to become smaller and smaller to cram in the extra circuits required for sophisticated computation. Then he described how engineering could be undertaken on the nanoscale, and to do so, he let his imagination run a little wild.

What Feynman envisaged was making use of the servo ‘hands’ found in nuclear plants to act remotely, but instead of making the hands the same size as the original human hands, building them on a quarter scale. He would also construct quarter size lathes to produce scaled down parts for new devices. These quarter scale tools would be used to produce sixteenth scale hands and lathes, which themselves would produce sixty-fourth scale items… and so on, until reaching the nanoscale.

The second component of Feynman’s vision was a corresponding multiplication of quantity, as you would need billions of nanobots to do anything practical. So he would not make one set of quarter scale hands, but ten. Each of those would produce 10 sixteenth scale devices, so there would be 100 of them – and so on. Feynman points out there would not be a problem of space or materials, because one billion 1/4000 scale lathes would only take up two percent of the space and materials of a conventional lathe.

When he discussed running nanoscale machines, Feynman even considered the effect on lubrication. The mechanical devices we are familiar with need oil to prevent them ceasing up. As he pointed out, the effective viscosity of oil gets higher and higher in proportion as you go down in scale. It stops being a lubricant and starts being like attempting to operate in a bowl of tar. But, he argues, you may well not need lubricants, as the bearings won’t run hot because the heat would escape very rapidly from such a small device.

So far, so good, but what is the problem Feynman mentions? He points out that ‘As we go down in size there are a number of interesting problems that arise. All things do not simply scale down in proportion.’ Specifically, as things get smaller they begin to stick together. If you unscrewed a nanonut from a nanobolt it wouldn’t fall off – the Van der Waals force we met on the gecko’s foot is stronger than the force of gravity on this scale. Small things stick together in a big way.

Feynman is aware there would be problems. ‘It would be like those old movies of a man with his hands full of molasses, trying to get rid of a glass of water.’ But he does effectively dismiss the problems. In reality, the nano-engineer doesn’t just have Van der Waals forces to deal with. Mechanical engineering generally involves flat surfaces briefly coming together to transfer force from one to the other, as when the teeth of a pair of gears mesh. But down at the nanoscale a new, almost magical, force springs into life – the Casimir effect.

If two plates get very close, they are attracted towards each other. This has nothing to do with electromagnetism, like the Van der Waals force, but is the result of a weird aspect of quantum theory. All the time, throughout all of space, quantum particles briefly spring into existence, then annihilate each other. An apparently empty vacuum is, in fact, a seething mass of particles that exist for such a short space of time that we don’t notice them.

However, one circumstance when these particles do come to the fore is when there are two sheets of material very close to each other. If the space separating the sheets is close enough, far fewer of these ‘virtual’ particles can appear between them than outside them. The result is a real pressure that pushes the plates together. Tiny parallel surfaces slam together under this pressure.

The result of these effects is that even though toy nanoscale gears have been constructed from atoms, a real nanotechnology machine – a nanobot – would simply not work using conventional engineering. Instead the makers of nanobots need to look to nature. Because the natural world has plenty of nanoscale machines, moving around, interacting and working. What’s the big difference? Biological machines are wet and soft.

By this I don’t mean they use water as a lubricant rather than oil, but rather they are not usually a device made up of a series of interlocking mechanical components like our machines but rather use a totally different approach to mechanisms and interaction that results in a ‘wet’, soft environment lacking flat surfaces and the opportunities for small scale stickiness to get in the way of their workings.

If we are to build nanomachines, our engineers need to think in a totally different way. We need to dismiss Feynman’s picture of miniature lathes, nuts, bolts and gears. Instead our model has to be the natural world and the mechanisms that evolution has generated to make our, admittedly inefficient, but still functioning nanoscale technology work and thrive. The challenge is huge – but so is the potential.

In the next article in this series we will look at the lessons we can learn from a specific example of nature’s ability to manufacture technology on the nanoscale – the remarkable virus.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Hanging with the Gecko - Nature's Nanotech (3)

Image from Wikipedia
If you’ve ever seen gecko walking up a wall, it’s an uncanny experience. Okay, it’s not a 40 kilo golden retriever, but we are still talking about an animal weighing around 70 grams that can suspend itself from a smooth wall as if it were a fly. For a gecko, even a surface like glass presents no problems. This is nature’s Spiderman.

It might be reasonable to assume that the gecko’s gravity defying feats were down to sucker cups on its feet, a bit like a lizard version of a squid, but the reality is much more interesting. Take a look at a gecko’s toes and you’ll see a series of horizontal pads called setae. Seen close up they look like collections of hairs, but in fact they are the confusingly named ‘processes’ – very thin extensions of the tissue of toe which branch out into vast numbers of nanometer scale bristles.

These tiny projections add up to a huge surface area that is in contact with the wall or other surface the gecko decides to encounter. And that’s the secret of their glue-free adhesion. Because the gecko’s setae are ideally structured to make the most of the van der Waals force. This is a quantum effect resulting from interaction between molecules in the gecko’s foot and the surface.

We are used to atoms being attracted to each other by the electromagnetic force between different charged particles. So, for example, water molecules are attracted to each other by the hydrogen bonding we saw producing spherical water droplets in the previous feature. The relative positive charge on one of the hydrogen atoms is attracted to the relative negative charge on an oxygen. But the van der Waals force is a result of additional attraction after the usual forces that bond atoms together in molecules and hydrogen bonding have been accounted for.

Because of the strange quantum motion of electrons around the outside of an atom, the charge at any point undergoes small fluctuations – van der Waals forces arise when these fluctuations pair up with opposite fluctuations in a nearby atom. The result is a tiny attraction between each of the nanoscale protrusions on the foot and the nearby surface, which add up over the whole of the foot to provide enough force to keep the gecko in place.

Remarkably, if every single protrusion on a typical gecko’s foot was simultaneously in contact with a surface it could keep a heavy human in place – up to around 133 kg. In fact the biggest problem a gecko has is not staying on a surface, but getting its foot off. To make this possible its toes are jointed unusually and it seems to secrete a lubricating fluid that makes it easier to detach its otherwise dry but sticky pads.

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of interest in making use of gecko-style technology. After all, master this approach and you have a form of adhesion that is extremely powerful, yet doesn’t deteriorate with repeated attaching and detaching like a conventional adhesive. A number of universities have been researching the subject.

The first publication seems to have been from the University of Akron in Ohio, where a paper in 2007 described a gecko technology sticky tape with four times the sticking power of a gecko’s foot, meaning fully deployed gecko-sized pads could hold up around half a tonne. With these on its feet, a 40 kilogram golden retriever would have no problem walking up walls – the only difficulty would be managing to apply enough force to detach its paws as it walked. In the tape, the gecko’s setae are replaced by nanotubes of carbon fibre which are attached to a sheet of flexible polymer, acting as the tape.

The great thing about carbon nanotubes, which are effectively long, thin, flexible carbon crystals, is that they can be significantly narrower than the smallest protrusions from a gecko’s foot. A typical nanotube has a diameter of a single nanometer – pure nanotechnology – maximising the opportunity for van der Waals attraction. Within a year, other researchers at the University of Dayton (Ohio again!) were announcing a glue with ten times the sticking power of the gecko’s foot.

Such adhesives are available commercially on a small scale, offering the ability to stick under extreme temperature conditions and to surfaces that are wet or flexible that would defeat practically any conventional adhesive. We can expect to see a lot more gecko tapes (like the Geckskin product) and gecko glues in the future.

There have been other theories to explain the mechanism of the gecko’s foot, including a form of capillary attraction, but the best evidence at the moment is in favour of van der Waals forces. This seems to be borne out by the problem geckos have sticking to Teflon – PTFE has very low van der Waals attractiveness. To find out more about the gecko’s foot (and other technological inspirations from nature) I would recommend the aptly titled The Gecko’s Foot by Peter Forbes.

The action that keeps a gecko in place is a dry application of natural nanotechnology, but the more you look at the nanotech biological world, the more you realize it’s mostly a wet world. In the next feature in this series we’ll look at why conventional ‘dry’ engineering often won’t work on nanoscales and how we need to take a different look at the way we build our technology, bringing liquids into the mix.
You can also read this post on the Popular Science website.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Magic Lotus Leaf - Nature's Nanotech (2)

Living things are built on hidden nanotechnology components, but sometimes that technology achieves remarkable things in a very visible way. A great example is the ‘lotus leaf effect.’ This is named after the sacred lotus, the Nelumbo nucifera, an Asian plant that looks a little like a water lily. The plant’s leaves often emerge into the air covered in sticky mud, but when water runs over them they are self cleaning – the mud runs off, leaving a bare leaf exposed to the sunlight.

Water on a leaf
Other plants have since been discovered to have a similar lotus leaf effect, including the nasturtium, the taro and the prickly pear cactus. Seen close up, the leaves of the sacred lotus are covered in a series of tiny protrusions, like a bad case of goose bumps. A combination of the shape of these projections and a covering of wax makes the surface hydrophobic. This literally means that it fears water, but more accurately, the leaf refuses to get too intimate with the liquid. This shouldn’t be confused with hydrophobia, a term for rabies!
 Water is naturally pulled into droplets by the hydrogen bonding that links its molecules and ensures that this essential liquid for life exists on the Earth (without hydrogen bonding, water would boil at around -70 Celsius). This attraction is why raindrops are spherical. They aren’t teardrop shaped as they are often portrayed. Left to their own devices, water drops are spherical because the force of the hydrogen bonding pulls all the molecules in towards each other, but there is no equivalent outward force, so the water naturally forms a sphere.

The surface of the lotus leaf helps water stay in that spherical form, rather than spreading out and wetting the leaf. The result is that the water rolls off, carrying dirt with it, rather like an avalanche picking up rocks as it passes by. Because of the shape of the surface pimples on the leaf, known as papillae, particles of dirt do not stick to the surface well, but instead are more likely to stick to the rolling droplets and be carried away. As well as letting the light through to enable photosynthesis, this effect is beneficial to the leaves as it protects them against incursion by fungi and other predatory growths.

Although the papillae themselves can be as large as 20,000 nanometres tall, the effectiveness of these bumps is in their nanoscale structure, with multiple tiny nobbly bits that reduce the amount of contact area the water has with the surface to a tiny percentage. After the effect was discovered in the 1960s, it seemed inevitable that industry would make use of it and there have been several remarkable applications.

One example that is often used is self-cleaning glass – which seems very reasonable as the requirement is identical to the needs of the lotus leaf – yet strangely, what is used here is entirely different. Pilkington, the British company that invented the float glass process, has such a glass product known as Activ. This has a photo-catalytic material on its surface that helps daylight to break down dirt into small particles, but it also has a surface coating that works in the opposite way to the lotus leaf. It’s an anti-lotus leaf effect.

The coating on this glass, a nanoscale thin film, is hydrophilic rather than hydrophobic. Instead of encouraging water to form into droplets that roll over the glass picking up the dirt as they go, this technology encourages water to slide over the surface in a sheet, sluicing the dirt away. In practice this works best with heavy rainfall, where the lotus effect is better at cleaning surfaces with less of a downpour – but both involve nanoscale modification of the surface to change the way that water molecules interact.

Increasingly now, though, we are seeing true lotus leaf effect inspired products, that make objects hydrophobic. A process like P2i’s Aridion technology applies a nano-scale coating of a fluoro-polymer that keeps water in droplets. The most impressive aspect of this technology is just how flexible it is. Originally used to protect soldiers clothing against chemical attack , the coatings are now being applied to electronic equipment like smartphones, where internal and external components are coated to make them hydrophobic, as well as lifestyle products such as footwear, gloves and hats. Working like self-cleaning glass would be disastrous here. The whole point is to keep the water off the substance, not to get it wetter.

We are really only just starting to see the applications of the lotus leaf effect come to full fruition. For now it is something of a rarity. Arguably it will become as common for a product to have a protective coating as it for it to be coloured with a dye or paint. Particularly for those of us who live in wet climates like the UK, it is hard to see why you wouldn’t want anything you use outdoors to shrug water off easily. I know there have been plenty of times when I have been worriedly rubbing my phone dry on my shirt that I would have loved the lotus leaf effect to have come to my rescue.

Seeing nanotechnology at work in the natural world doesn’t have to help us come up with new products. It could just be a way of understanding better how a remarkable natural phenomenon takes place. In the next article in this series I will be looking at a mystery that was unlocked with a better understanding of nature’s nanotech – but one that also has significant commercial implications. How does a gecko cling on to apparently smooth walls?


You can also read this post on the Popular Science website.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

An Introduction to Nature's Nanotech

Did you know that aspects of nature are built on nanotechnology? Brain Clegg, popular science author has written a series of posts (seven in total) exploring the nanotechnology that exists in nature. The series which is sponsored by P2i begins with an introduction which you can read below.

When we think of nanotechnology, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that we are dealing with the ultimate in artificial manufacturing, the diametric opposite of something that’s natural. Yet in practice, nature is built on nanotechnology. From the day-to-day workings of the components of every single biological cell to the subtle optics of a peacock feather, what we see is nanotechnology at work.
 Not only are the very building blocks of nature nanoscale, but natural nanotechnology is a magnificent inspiration for ways to make use of the microscopic to change our lives and environment for the better. By studying how very small things work in the natural world we can invent remarkable new products – and this feature is the first in a series that will explore just how much we can learn and gain from nature’s nano tech.

As I described in The Nanotechnology Myth the term ‘nanotechnology’ originates from the prefix nano- which is simply a billionth. Nanotechnology makes use of objects on the scale of a few nanometres, where a nanometre is a millionth of a millimetre. For comparison, a human hair is around 50,000 nanometres across. Nanotechnology encompasses objects that vary in size from a large molecule to a virus. A bacterium, typically around 1,000 nanometres in size, is around the upper limit of nanoscale items.

A first essential is to understand that although nanotechnology, like chemistry, is involved in the interaction of very small components of matter, it is entirely different from a chemical reaction. Chemistry is about the way those components join together and break apart. Nanotechnology is primarily about their physics – how the components interact. If we think of the analogy of making a bicycle, the ‘chemistry’ of the bicycle is how the individual components bolt together, the ‘nanotechnology’ is how, for example, the gear interacts with the chain or pushing the pedals makes the bike go.

This distinction is necessary to get over the concern some people raise about nature and nanotechnology. A while ago, when I wrote my book on environmental truth and lies, Ecologic, I had a strange argument with a representative of the Soil Association, the UK’s primary organic body. In 2008 the Soil Association banned nanoparticles from their products. But it only banned man-made nanoparticles, claiming that natural ones, like soot, are fine ‘because life has evolved with these.’

This is a total misunderstanding of the science. If there are any issues with nanotechnology they are about the physics, not the chemistry of the substance – and there is no sensible physical distinction between a natural nanoparticle and an artificial one. In the case of the Soil Association, the reasoning was revealed when they admitted that they take ‘a principles-based regulatory approach, rather than a case-by-case approach based on scientific information.’ In other words their opposition was a knee-jerk one to words like ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ rather than based on substance.

Of themselves, like anything else, nanoparticles and nanotechnology in general can be used for bad or for good. Whether natural or artificial they have benefits and disadvantages. A virus, for example, is a purely natural nanotechnology that can be devastatingly destructive to living things. And as we will see, there are plenty of artificial nanotechnologies that bring huge benefits.

In nature, nanotechnology is constructed from large molecules. A molecule is nothing more than a collection of atoms, bonded together to form a structure, which can be as simple as a sodium chloride molecule – one atom each of the elements sodium and chlorine – or as complex as the dual helix of DNA. We don’t always appreciate how significant individual molecules are.

I had a good example of this a few days ago when I helped judge a competition run by the University of the West of England for school teams producing science videos. The topic they were given was the human genome – and the result was a set of very varied videos, some showing a surprising amount of talent. At the awards event I was giving a quick talk to the participants, looking at the essentials of a good science video. I pointed out that they had used a lot of jargon without explaining it – a common enough fault even in mainstream TV science.

Just to highlight this, I picked out a term most of them had used, but none had explained – chromosomes. What, I asked them was a chromosome? They told me what it did, but didn’t know what it was, except that it was a chunk of DNA and each human had 46 of them in most of their cells. This is true, but misses the big point. A chromosome is simply a single molecule of DNA. Nothing more, nothing less. One molecule.

Admittedly a chromosome is a very large molecule. Human chromosome 1 is the biggest molecule we know of, with around 10 billion atoms. Makes salt look a bit feeble. But it is still a molecule. The basic components of the biological mechanisms of everything living, up to an including human beings are molecules. Chromosomes provide one example, effectively information storage molecules with genes as chunks of information strung along a strip of DNA. Then there are proteins, the workhorses of the body. There are neurotransmitters and enzymes, and a whole host of molecules that are the equivalent of gears to the body’s magnificent clockwork. These are the building blocks of natural nanotechnology.

So with a picture of what we’re dealing with we can set out to see nature’s nanotech in action and the first example, in the next feature in this series, will show how nanotechnology on the surface of a leaf has inspired both self-cleaning glass and water resistant trainers.


You can also read this article on the Popular Science website.