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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A Brief History of Nanotechnology: Part 1 - Roots

In this series we are going to take a closer look at the history of nanotechnology, from early findings through to the present day and what developments nanotechnology can bring for the future.

To begin we are going to explore the beginnings of nanotechnology.

Most people consider nanotechnology to be a modern field of science. Primary development occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, and it continues to evolve. Its history is usually traced as far back as Richard Feynman's famous 1959 lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". Feynman did not specifically name nanotechnology, but his talk "inspired the conceptual beginnings of the field decades later”.

However, as a recent article in the Guardian suggests, the field may actually have roots that extend much further back - all the way into the ancient world. "Artisans from the past also controlled matter at the tiniest scales," writes the article's author, Rosamund Daw. "By modern-day standards, they were working in a branch of nanotechnology called nanocomposites. These are bulk materials in which nanoscale particles are mixed to improve the properties of the overall or composite material."

One example of this is the Lycurgus cup, a Roman glass cage cup containing nanoparticles that make the glass look red when light shines through it but green when viewed in reflected light. Another is Maya Blue, a bright azure pigment discovered in the Mayan city of Chichen Itz which is particularly resistant to wear and contains clay with nanopores into which indigo dye was combined chemically to create an environmentally-stable pigment. And in 2006 researchers in Germany revealed that they had discovered nanowires and carbon nanotubes in a Damascus steel sabre from the 17th century.

The artisans who crafted these objects and materials may not exactly have been nanotechnologists by modern standards, but it's impressive to see how far back the history of this modern technology can be traced. Moreover, the discoveries that today's scientists have made as a result of looking at these very old objects may actually help advance the field. "Some of these studies are providing pointers for new nanotechnology research," writes Daw. Based on a study of the properties of the Lycurgus cup, for example, "researchers have developed thin nanocomposite films containing gold nanoparicles which can reflect infra-red while still transmitting light. These films could be used to coat windows in hot countries to reflect heat away while allow light through the glass, thus reducing the need for air conditioning." So the history of nanotechnology is informing its future.

In our next post we will take a look at the early stages of nanotechnology development...

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