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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Bourne Research > Connecting the Dots: School Supplies and Nanotechnology


It's back-to-school time, so let's take a look at the role that nanomaterials are playing in some things that kids are most familiar with.

August 15th, 2008

Connecting the Dots: School Supplies and Nanotechnology

This week's five-minute podcast episode is part of the ongoing listener's challenge, in which I asked you to come up with random items from everyday life and challenge me to find the MEMS or nanotech connection. The challenge item is: school supplies.

How many of you watched the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing?
I can't think of a better example of the importance of not only staying in school, but getting kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math. Watching the ceremonies from a technology perspective, what I saw was a spectacular representation of how science, engineering and art really go hand in hand.

Did you know that the Chinese are credited for inventing paper, ink, printing, and optics? That was all certainly apparent during the ceremonies when they unrolled the world's largest LED (light emitting diode) display. Not to mention what they're perhaps best known for - fireworks. And where does the innovation behind all of this start? School.

Over the next month, kids all around the world will be heading back to school. There's growing concern here in the United States that our kids are rapidly falling behind other countries when it comes to science and engineering. So, how about getting them more interested in these topics by showing them how nanotechnology is playing a role in items they interact with everyday in the classroom: their basic school supplies.

I always liked shopping for school supplies - there was something very promising about crisp notebooks and folders, and brand new pencils and crayons.

Speaking of crayons, it's very likely that nanoscale pigments are being used to give crayons their color. This is because most of the manufacturers of pigments (or at least the leading ones, like Engelhard, now part of BASF), produce pigments and colors at the nanoscale; and have been for a number of years.

As for pencils…last summer Pentel, a leading manufacturer of pencils, introduced a new line called Ain Supplio, which were smelly (in a good way), thanks to the use of nanotechnology. The lead in these aromatherapy pencils was infused with scents like rosemary, mint, lemongrass and green tea. Apparently, the use of nanotechnology (which, in this case, is probably some kind of nano-encapsulation of the ingredients themselves), makes the scents last longer; up to three years according to the company, if the pencils are kept in the box.

What would crayons and pencils be without paper? I've previously spoken about the nanotechnology angle to paper; back in podcast #70 I mentioned how the use of silica nanoparticles not only makes paper smoother and stronger, but also reduces the amount of raw materials needed to make paper. The use of less pulp not only means you need fewer trees, but less water as well. That's about as environmentally friendly as you can get.

Glue and paste are very important school supplies for kids. During one of my radio shows a few weeks ago, we learned how Ecosynthetix is using nanoscale starch and sugar to create next-generation glues and adhesives that are much more environmentally friendly than the petroleum-based products currently on the market. Given the number of kids who like to eat paste (or at least give it a try) that seems like a much better approach.

Another thing I think of when I hear the word "school supplies" is scissors; especially the safety scissors for little kids - the kind with blunt, round noses. And while I didn't come up with a direct nanotech connection, the following news item is at least timely.

Scientists at the University of Tokyo recently revealed the development of a molecular-level device that looks like scissors, and can be opened and closed by shining light on it. Just 3 nanometers long, it has a handle and blades, as well as pivot for the blades to open and close.

Rings of carbon and hydrogen were used to make the blades; the pivot is a molecule which is basically an iron atom sandwiched between two carbon plates. The handles are organic chemical structures that are basically stuck together with a molecule that reacts to light. Shining visible light on that molecule makes it expand, thus driving the handles apart and closing the blades. Shining ultraviolet light on it does the opposite: the handles come together and open the blades.

Going back to paper…how about school lunch? Those little individual milk cartons (the square cardboard ones) are a quintessential image of school lunch - at least for me.

Did you know that that papers and cardboards with a waxy finish, like those used to make milk cartons, aren't biodegradable? The waxy finish is necessary to make the carton hydrophobic, or repel liquids, so milk (or other liquid) doesn't soak through the paper. But this material is currently made from petrochemicals - petroleum - and thus isn't recyclable.

Well, nanotechnology to the rescue. Nanoscale coating materials are now available which can replace the wax emulsions that are currently being used. And even better, since they're made from nanoparticles of an organic material - they're more environmentally friendly.

In this week's radio show we'll talk with TopChim about their use of nanoscale coatings on paper and cardboard and how that makes them more biodegradable. And in our news of the week: high-tech Olympic swimsuits and MEMS in souvenir Olympic torches, plus nanotech-based doping tests and rugby shirts.

You can listen to the entire show on or look for Bourne Report Radio in iTunes, Google and Newsgator.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #106.

© 2008 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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