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|Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd, located in Valley View, Ohio. This column originally appeared at IndustryWeek.com.|
Let's go outside and play in the big, green world.
We're rolling into the dog days of summer. Who wants to think about manufacturing? Or science? Or product development? What do you say we go outside and play? Let's take a nature hike in the Nanosphere. It's a big, green world out there, so let's take a few minutes to enjoy it.
Ok, you caught me. Our nature hike is a bit of an educational field trip, and we may learn something along the way about. Still, it gets us out into the garden, up in the forest, onto the beach. So let's see what we can see.
First stop, a sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Smell the salt air? That's the smell of nano. Natural processes, like sea spray, create nanoscale salt particles. The better to smell you with, my dear!
Are you a shell collector? Pick up that abalone shell and take a good look. It's 98% calcium carbonate but 3000 times tougher than rocks with the same composition. How? That clever little creature built up layer after layer of sheets, each between 50 and 200 nanometers thick. Scientists have done their best to copy the process, but still haven't achieved 1/10 of the strength. Mother Nature is a heck of a scientist, yes?
Here's another splash in the surf. Natural nano helps mussels cling to the rocks - until we harvest them for a meal with butter and garlic. When a mussel pushes out its foot to grab a rock, it releases tiny molecular bubbles that have an adhesive in the center, surrounded by a shell of water-loving atoms. The structure is called a micelle. The water-loving bubble protects the adhesive just long enough to get to the rock, then pops. The adhesive sticks, and so does the mussel.
Take a look toward the Gulf, too. There are micelles, nature and nanotechnology at work there, too, helping to clean up the oil spill. Oil dispersants that are plant derived, water based and biodegradable are held in a micelle bubble. The micelles can penetrate oil molecules and break them down into their building blocks. Then it holds the materials in suspension until natural bacteria arrive to consume them.
Now let's head for dry land and take a stroll through the forest. Look up at those towering pine trees - and enjoy that fresh evergreen smell. The tree resins that create that scent contain terpene, a natural nanoscale hydrocarbon. You probably know it better as the key ingredient in turpentine, nature's favorite paint thinner.
Now look over there! Did you see that frog we just scared up out of the foliage? He's making a getaway thanks to some natural nano-engineering. His inner ear holds tiny nanomechanical cantilevers that may move as little as 3 nanometers in reaction to sound - say, the footsteps of predators like us. By the way, if our hike were in the desert instead of the forest, we might also see another of nature's nano-ized creatures: the gecko. Millions of nano-hairs on its feet give this little lizard the power to support up to 200 times its own weight while hanging from a ceiling.
You need to get back to the office, say? Ok, let's make a final stop in the garden. Flowers to the left, veggies to the right, nanotechnology all around. Let's start with the flowers, say nasturtiums. It keeps its leaves clean by the lotus effect - named after another flower, now that I think of it. The leaves of the lotus - and the nasturtium - have a nano-structured surface, like a microscopic fuzz. The fuzz is so fine and closely packed, it keeps water droplets from adhering to the surface. They run off at high speeds, taking surface dirt with them.
The lotus effect is also at work on the creatures that pollinate those flowers - butterflies. It keeps their wings protected from rain and moisture. And the colors you enjoy as they bob and weave through the garden? That's nanotechnology, too. Nanolayers of color in the wings provide the intricacy and depth.
Of course, we can't forget the most basic nano-process in the garden. Photosynthesis. That's right. With sunlight as their solar power, plants extract carbon dioxide from air and water and rearrange atoms to form oxygen and carbohydrates - all at the atomic and molecular level, which is measured in nanometers. Remember that you run on nano-sized chemistry, too. Proteins are nanoscale. Vitamins D and E travel have to travel in micelles to be properly absorbed. The hemoglobin that ferries oxygen through your bloodstream is less than 10 nanometers in size.
Well, here we are back at the office. Thanks for joining me on our little NanoNature walk. I hope you found it a refreshing break from the amped-up rhetoric that sometimes clouds the environmental discussion on nanotechnology. Better yet, I hope it gives you some ideas for innovations in your own products. From where I stand, it's only natural.
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