What do Irish rugby & nanotechnology have in common?

Guest post by Dr. Éilis McGrath

Well, not much you may think but recent events have placed these two very different subjects in the same field. Since Ireland’s recent successes in the Rugby World cup we have risen in the world rankings to 6th. This is a fantastic achievement for our national team and we wish them well in the up-coming matches. What you may not know is that Ireland is also 6th in the world when it comes to nanotechnology.

But what is nanotechnology and how does it impact our lives and more importantly how did Ireland reach this position in the world rankings?

Nanotechnology and nanoscience are the study and manipulation of materials at a very small scale. A nanometre is one billionth of a meter and a nano-scale material is defined as “A material with one or more dimensions of < 100 nm’’. To put it in perspective, a nanometre is about 4 atoms long or think about the size of a football – it’s about 100 million times smaller than the earth; a nanometre is about 100 million times smaller than a football! When we study things at this scale materials can take on new and exciting properties – insulators can become conductive, soft materials can display incredible strength and coloured materials can even become transparent.

These remarkable changes provide exciting opportunities for traditional businesses to develop improved devices and processes and for new enterprises to develop revolutionary products. Designing things on this small scale will enable many products that we know today become potentially faster, lighter, smaller and more energy efficient. Nanoscience has already answered some interesting scientific questions like how geckos walk upside down on ceilings and how we will get around Moore’s law (Moore’s law is a trend stating that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years) to fit smaller and smaller circuitry in our electronics. See photos (left & below) for close ups of the nano features on a geckos feet  that enable then to walk upside down.

Nanotechnology is fast becoming more prevalent in our everyday lives, from clothing, cosmetics, computing and healthcare devices to future applications such as flexible computers and nanobots for medical diagnostics and treatment. Nanotechnology is currently widely applied in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry in the manufacture of smaller circuitry and more efficient data storage. Carbon nanotubes are utilised in the sports industry to make stronger, lighter equipment and many cosmetics contain nanomaterials to aid in the delivery of active ingredients. Advances in nanoscience are contributing to a “greener” planet with the development of more efficient solar cells and lighter materials in cars and aeroplanes.

Nanotechnology’s greatest potential may lie in the future applications of medical science. In the last fifteen years, nano-medicine has moved from fantasy to reality. Imagine a future where cancer cells can be specifically targeted and destroyed, whole labs for disease analyses and diagnoses could be replaced with credit-card sized “labs on a chip”, and pills with nanomaterials could be swallowed and used to image internal organs and systems. Patients would reap the benefits of faster diagnosis with minimally invasive procedures. These ideas are not fiction and are currently being researched in facilities all around the world.

Where does Ireland fit in the world of nanotechnology? Nanoscience underpins key sectors of our economy – ICT, pharmaceuticals and medical devices among others. It is estimated to contribute 10% of our national exports worth €15 BN and is linked to over 120,000 jobs in Ireland. . Our ranking of 6th in the world stems from our impact in the world of nanoscience publications. Research carried out at the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN), the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funded, nanoscience research institute based at Trinity College Dublin, is responsible for >70 % of the outputs associated with the ranking. This incredible science can play a huge part in our economic recovery and Ireland is well poised to become an international leader in nanotechnology research and development.

Our next generation of scientists, secondary school students, will be introduced to nanoscience through the “Nano in my Life” modules, developed by CRANN, and due for launch in Science Week 2011. These materials including videos and teachers’ notes aim to inspire secondary school students about the basics of nanoscience and encourage them to study science at 3rd level. Already college courses are beginning to feature nanoscience in their degree courses, e.g. TCD’s Nanoscience – Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (N-PCAM).

The world is taking note of this amazing science and in 2010 Nobel Prizes were granted in Physics and Chemistry for nano related developments and advanced materials. Let’s hope that the success of both our rugby team and Ireland’s position in the nano world continue to rise!

Dr. Éilis McGrath is interested in science and engineering communications and currently works for CRANN with the outreach, communications and technical marketing team. She has a Ph.D. from UCD which focused on nano-bio materials and has an Honours Degree from DIT in manufacturing engineering. 

For more information see: CRANN’s YouTube channel, CRANN website, Ireland’s Nanotechnology Commercialisation Framework 2010 – 2014 report by Forfás, INSPIRE (Integrated Nanoscience Platform for Ireland), Nanoscience – Physics and Chemistry of Advanced Materials (N-PCAM)

Images: Courtesy of CRANN