An Overview of Nanochemistry

The prefix nano comes from the Greek for dwarf and refers to something which is 10-9 (ten to the power minus nine). To give some perspective a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter or a billionth of a meter. Nanochemistry is the chemistry of very small particles which it turns out is sometimes different from normal chemistry with nanoparticles. exhibiting different behaviors to what might normally be expected of that material.

Nanochemistry

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Nanochemistry is not new as it may have been used inadvertently as far back as the fifth century BC. It was not until relatively recently that the reasons for nano chemicals and nanoparticles behaving differently begun to be understood. It was the invention of the scanning tunneling electron microscope that gave the study of nanoparticles impetus and lead to the phrase “Nanotechnology” being introduced by US Engineer Eric Drexler in the 1980s.

The use of nanochemistry and nanotechnology is now becoming more and more common. Nano chemicals are used in the chemical industry, materials science, engineering, biological and medical industries, electronics, computing, polymer production, and synthesis, and many other areas. Most of us have probably used nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to absorb and repel harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays from the sun in sunscreen creams. Many of our cars use nano chemicals particles to protect bright colored paints.

What is Nanochemistry

Nanochemistry is a branch of nanoscience and is the study of the chemical behaviors of very small particles of a substance. Nanochemistry does not usually exist on its own but operates in conjunction with nanophysics, nanobiology, nanoelectronics, and nanomaterials nanoscience and nanomanufacturing which are collectively known as nanotechnology or nanoscience.

Nanoscience is the study of nanophenomena and nanotechnology the application of nanoscience. To study nanochemistry you would generally need to have a degree in chemistry and to study for a post-graduate degree. More than twenty  universities in the UK offer postgraduate degrees in nanotechnology

Substances behave differently on a nanoscale because all the atoms are on the surface and they exhibit different chemical, physical, magnetic, electronic, and optical properties to larger particles. Nanoparticles are tiny but larger than individual molecules but because they are so small they have a large surface area to volume ratio which makes them highly reactive. The chemistry involved is often at the junction between traditional chemistry and quantum chemistry.

Nanochemists discover and develop new pharmaceutical products, structural materials, electronic device components, light-emitting materials, and many other products, some of which may already be in use commercially. Nanochemists may also study the health and safety effects of airborne and water-borne nanoparticles or use them to clean up or neutralize pollutants.

Instrumentation for Nano Chemistry

The advances in nanochemistry and nanotechnology are enabled and restrained by the types of instrumentation and equipment available. Nanochemistry operates at a scale very close to atomic size so the equipment required is very specialized and sophisticated. Many advances have been possible because of the development of Atomic Force Microscopy. This instrument allows for force measurement and topographical imaging but also allows for manipulation on the surface of the material down to a molecular level. An advantage of this technique is that it does not rely on the radiation of any kind and so does not need lenses which means you do not have to worry about the resolution of images.

In addition to the Atomic Force Microscope, many other types of equipment can work at the nano level such as atomic absorption spectrometers atomic emission spectrometers, and more. For a more complete list of equipment visit https://www.azonano.com/nanotechnology-equipment-index.aspx which has many types of equipment listed and links to suppliers.

What are the uses for Nano Chemistry

Nanochemistry is an integral part of most nanotechnology studies and applications. The behavior of the particular nanomaterial of interest can be studied by the nanochemist to identify and predict its behaviors on a nanoscale. As mentioned above nanochemistry is used in sunscreen and car paint, but it also has many uses in medicines, instrumentation, electronics, and more.

Medical applications include detection and treatment of cancer, delivery of medicines to the point of need, growth of new organs, nanosurgery techniques, and more. The nanochemist must ensure that the nano chemical properties of the nanoparticles being used are not harmful to the patient. As with many other types of technology the more knowledge is generated the greater the number of opportunities for use of technology is discovered.

We all have a natural nanocomposite material inside us – bones – which are a nanocomposite of calcium hydroxyapatite crystals and collagen. Orthopedic and dental surgeons have discovered that using the titanium that is commonly used in joint and implant surgery inhibits bone growth if it is too smooth. So in surgery, it is now good practice to have nano chemical structures on implants to aid regrowth and this is sometimes a composite of chemical polymer and nanoceramic particles.

Nanochemistry finds applications in instrumentation. Nanoscale sensors can detect tiny amounts of contaminants as the nano properties of the tiny sensors are altered by the presence of one or two molecules of the target chemical. These types of instruments can have applications in environmental monitoring, water treatment, food production, and a host of other scenarios.

Nanochemistry is used in the energy industry where ultra small scale energy storage cells are being developed and nano chemical behavior enhances the properties of materials being used. Nanoparticles can also be used for the manufacture of lightweight strong conductors.

Nanochemistry is also important in the development of smaller and smaller electronics. Understanding how a material will behave on a nanoscale can be advantageous to developing new smaller less energy-hungry data storage and many other applications.

An area where nanochemistry impinges on normal day-to-day life is materials technology. The addition of nanoparticles to fabrics can help with the prevention of microbial growth. Nanosilver in particular is used to prevent and control microbial growth. Another everyday use of nanochemistry is the production of carbon fiber components for sports equipment, vehicle parts, etc.

Outlined here are just a few potential nano chemical applications. The number and diversity of applications will continue to grow with time. Boundaries are continually being expanded with knowledge and by the advances in nano instrumentation and the ability to create more and more controlled and extreme environments such as cryo-chambers etc. Nanochemistry will be a critical part of any future developments in nanotechnology.

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Further Reading

Last Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Oliver Trevelyan

Written by

Oliver Trevelyan

Oliver is a graduate in Chemical Engineering from the University of Surrey and has 25 years of experience in industrial water treatment in the UK and abroad. He has worked extensively in steam system controls and energy management. Oliver writes on science, engineering, and the environment.

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