What are nanoparticles?
Nanoparticles are ultrafine pieces of material with a significantly small size (0 - 100 nm) which are impossible to see by human eyes. Nanoparticles are very interesting because they posses different material properties (quantum effects) than the properties of bulk materials. Everybody knows the color of a golden ring but the color of golden nanoparticles can variate between red to blue or even transparent. The change in property can be understood by looking to humans and there behavior. A single person acts differently being on its own or part of a group. The same holds for atoms (the smallest building block in nature). A single gold atom posses different properties than a group of gold atoms. The bigger the group of humans or gold atoms becomes the smaller the changes are. Introducing a few more people to a group of thousand won't influence the group behavior, neither will a few gold atoms influence the properties of a golden ring (consisting of billions of atoms).
Why are Nanoparticles used?
The development of new materials is a big contributor to innovation in a variety of industries. Metallic nanoparticles, for example, are liquid at room temperature, making them much easier to use in the production of circuit boards. Understanding and applying what we know of size-related properties allows us, for example, to create cleaner and more efficient ways of producing and storing energy or even to create specialized nanomaterials with extremely precise functionality. The biggest barriers to application, however, are the knowledge gaps of the quantum effects and limited ways of efficiently scaling up nanoparticle production.Nanoparticles with photovoltaic properties have been found to have a higher efficiency rate than existing solar cells. Other nanoparticles have self-cleaning or hydrophobic properties, making them suitable candidates for improved coatings. Gold nanoparticles are even investigated for there use in curing cancer.
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The size of nanoparticles makes the production and handling complex and time consuming. With special microscopes and tools researchers are getting better in the production and handling of nanoparticles but it is still far from optimal. It is not exceptional that a researcher spent months on optimizing the production for a specific type of nanoparticle. Most nanoparticles are made in a liquid solution where multiple parameters need to be controlled to get the desired output (a certain size or composition).Since the growth and agglomeration of nanoparticles is controlled by the addition of chemicals particle surface contamination is inevitable.
Nanoparticles and safety
Operator and environmental exposure are two areas of primary concern when working with nanomaterials. At the micro level, despite the fact that living organisms have natural defenses against particles, nanoparticles are small enough to bypass many of these physiological protections. At the macro level, there is very little knowledge of the impact of nanomaterials on the overall ecosystem balance. For these reasons, the safety protocols in place for working with nanoparticles are taken from existing precautions for fine particles and toxic materials including the use of protective bodily gear and environmental filters and following safe containment and disposal procedures.