Nanotechnology seeks to create new products by harnessing incredibly small substances. While the industry is booming, the potential dangers to humans remain unknown.
Research is underway to assess nanotechnology's environmental impacts
Nanotechnology has been heralded as the key technology of the 21st century which could produce mind-boggling new inventions. Everything that is smaller than 100 nanometers (one nanometer is a measurement that is one billionth of a meter) is considered part of nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology encompasses various disciplines including information technology, medicine, environmental technology and optics. Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, has become a global center for nanotechnology research. Researchers and industry leaders recently traveled to Dresden to exchange ideas at a nano trade fair.
Nanotechnology has huge market potential. It already forms the foundation for developments such as high-capacity hard drives, bright, iridescent car paint and a scratch-proof coating for eyeglasses. Almost every day a new product gets added to the list of nanotechnology marvels. The nanofair showcased the latest research that is on the cusp of becoming reality.
New uses for nanotechnology are constantly being discovered
"Nanodiamonds are a very interesting material," Jörg Opitz from the the Fraunhofer Institute for Non-Destructive Testing (IZFP) told DW-WORLD.DE, referring to tiny carbon crystals. "We hope that they can be inserted into cells and used as biological sensors which could possibly at some point diagnose cancer."
Nanodiamonds can fluoresce or emit their own light. Since nanodiamonds are much smaller than a human cell, they can be designed to specifically target cancer cells. The cells would then fluoresce, which would allow a doctor to locate the exact location and extent of a tumor.
Nanodiamonds could revolutionize cancer care by offering a diagnosis that is quicker and more precise. But nanodiamonds' potential extends beyond cancer treatment.
"At the moment we are looking at airplanes and detecting corrosion while simultaneously measuring how far it has progressed," Opitz said.
For that project, his institute is collaborating with European plane manufacturer Airbus.
A genuine marvel
It's not always easy to visualize the "nano-world"
Governments meanwhile are continuously looking for ways to make the paper money they produce more difficult to counterfeit. Nanoparticles being studied by Claus Feldmann from the University of Karlsruhe could revolutionize anti-counterfeiting measures.
The tiny compounds he has under study are invisible when seen under normal light. But when they are stimulated, they light up, he said. For example, a UV light would turn imprints from these luminescent nanoparticles green or red.
Unlike current security features on European money, they can't be bleached away, making them much more secure, Feldmann said.
No one disputes nanotechnology's potential. But is it safe for humans and the environment? That question remains intensely debated by researchers such as Andreas Leson from the Fraunhofer Insitute IWS in Dresden.
The German government has established a "nano-dialogue" that includes scientists, companies and also nature conservation groups, Leson said. The German government has given scientists multi-million euro grants to study nanotechnology's safety.
The EU has also gotten involved in funding projects with names such as NanoDerm, NanoTox and Impart. Researchers are still performing tests to discover which nanoparticles are dangerous and still lack reliable data on whether particles could cause damage to humans.
Although the debate over risk remains very preliminary, potentially dangerous aspects are already beginning to emerge.
The nanoparticles are so small that they can override the blood-brain-barrier, which in humans protects the brain from harmful chemicals in the blood. Animal tests have shown this to be potentially very dangerous.
The tiny particles also have the potential to damage the lungs, much as asbestos does.