Debunking top five nanotechnology myths!

Nanoscience and nanotechnology is among the most misunderstood and misinterpreted streams of science by general public. Eventually, public becomes the consumers of the nanotechnology products and it’s inevitable that these misconceptions and false impressions will be reflected by their purchase behavior. The best of nanotechnology is yet to come and it has to prove its worth in the process to gain a strong foot in our everyday lives. However, persistent myths about nanotechnology have negatively affected the progress and consumer acceptance of nanotechnology products in serious ways. First, myths can hamper with the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology as research funding from funding bodies are quite sensitive to public opinion. Secondly, myths can lead to wrong direction and objectives, generate confusion and fear among consumers, limiting the widespread acceptance of the nanotechnology and its products. No technology will survive without public the acceptance and nanotechnology is not different.

Myths also can positively influence technologies, mainly through generating enthusiasm both politically and economically.  Nanotechnology myths about unrealistic deliverables helped greatly to raise research funds during 1980’s when nanotechnology sprouted and started to grow more independently as a scientific stream.

Most of the nanotechnology myths trigger a sense of fear and/or uncertainty towards its products and some others generate unreasonable expectations. This cause myths to dig in as they activate imagination of the people in our society. Once a myth get firmly rooted in the culture it can alter the public opinion for many years to come. Although, a serious scientific investigation is yet to be carried out, many experts believe that the reason for widespread myths about nanoscience and technology is primarily the lack of awareness and knowledge about the nanotechnology fundamentals. Also they hold popular communication channels such as television, internet and social media responsible for making unrealistic promises about research stage developments. This can lead to unreasonable expectations about nanotechnology.  For an example, it’s not difficult to find blog posts and articles in most of technology news websites which introduce fundamental level nanotechnology research as if they are ready to be bought in the shelf today. It is done to gain more viewership and engagement from the public.

In this article we will try to discuss and debunk five most widespread myths about nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Myth 1: Nanotechnology products are unsafe

This is the top nanotechnology myth of all time. It has been there in the society from the inception of nanotechnology as a separate field of scientific research. This myth is deeply rooted to a level that some percentage of the population completely reject nano products without a question and even stand against the funding of nanotechnology research and developments.

This myth is fear driven. Many people who believe it thinks that because nanoparticles are very small and operate in a size close to fundamental building blocks of biological structures, they can interfere with natural cellular level processes. They trust that these interactions cause imbalance in natural processes and will lead to mutations and diseases like cancer.

It is true that nanoparticles are very small compared to the cells of our body. However, it’s also important to note that molecules are even smaller than the nanoparticles. If we take nanoparticles can negatively interfere with our cells due to their smaller size, then molecules should have even more adverse effects. But we know that most of the molecules are compatible with cells while some can be very nasty. For an example, water molecules have no any negative effect at all on cells, but hydrogen cyanide or HCN, an equally small molecule, can inhibit cellular respiration and kill the cell almost instantly. Similarly, some nanoparticles do not have any negative effect on cells and biological processes and some nanoparticles are known toxins.

Consequently, there is no scientific base to think that all the nanotechnology products are unsafe to use. Like we don’t use or allow to use HCN in consumer goods, nano products must also be regulated to a level that unsafe or doubtful nanomaterials are not allowed in them. It’s the responsibility of the governments to regulate the nanotechnology products and companies to adopt ethical practices to bring only the proven safe materials to the market. There is also a responsibility for consumers to get more knowledgeable about nanotechnology and on the products they are buying.

Myth 2: Nanotechnology products are safe

This is again a myth. Some percentage of our population is driven by the excitement and has lot of belief on the novel developments in nanotechnology. These so called, early adaptors of nanotechnology products have less or no hesitation to try and test new products in the market. It’s important to know that having confidence on science and having it on nanotechnology claiming products are completely two different things. We live in a world where businessmen would bid many things for a profitable venture. Sometimes that bid may be your health and safety.

“Some” nanomaterials have scientifically proven health effects. Some others have shown scientific evidence that they can be cytotoxic or genotoxic to cells. For an example, the most popular nanomaterial in nanotechnology products; silver has shown some genotoxic and cytotoxic behavior towards cells. It’s unfortunate that these products were not regulated in anyway prior to their launch.

Again, it’s a collective responsibility of governments, commercial institutions and consumers to adopt more responsible practices in launching and purchasing nanotechnology products.

good and bad nanotechnology products

Myth 3: Amazing properties of nanomaterials will be there in the nano products too

This is a myth because it can be very misleading. Projecting the nanomaterial properties, directly in to the final product is wrong.

Let me explain. Many of us are familiar with exciting claims about nanomaterials. Let’s take, “graphene is 200 times stronger than steel”, claim as an example. It is true, modulus of graphene is really 200 times higher than the steel. But the only problem is graphene is so small and to build a structure at least in a size of small steel cable you need nearly countless number of individual graphene sheets that has very little adhesion between each other. It doesn’t matter how strong the graphene is, when you pull the cable made with graphene layers, they simply slip across each other and break off. Purely speaking, graphene cable is only as strong as the weakest adhesion between two graphene layers. The amazing strength of graphene is simply irrelevant. This is not only true with the strength of a material but on many other properties like, electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, permeability, diffusion etc. Your nanomaterial may have amazing properties, but when you scale up, defects play the major role in determining the final material properties. Specially, when you have nanomaterials, there will be many defects as you need many of them to build up a larger structure.

Myth 4: Products that claim nanotechnology in them, has superior function

This is a myth because it should not always be true. We live in a competitive world and marketers would do many things to gain an extra edge in selling their product. Claiming nanotechnology, can sometimes give an extra advantage in marketing or allow marketers to pitch their product at a higher price. Sometimes, they may be using some nanomaterials on an already proven formulation that may not even give a slightest of a property enhancement. Instead, the nanomaterial merely give them right to claim the product as nanotechnology based one.

Myth 5: Nanotechnology is still “experimental”, whose products will only be seen in the future

This is not true. According to US national nanotechnology initiative the global market for nanotechnology products and services would reach 1 trillion US dollars in the year of 2015. There are more than 500 nanotechnology based companies only in US. Currently there are more than 1500, products utilizing nanotechnology. They range from, sunscreens and sunglasses to car tires, clothing and cosmetics.  So nanotechnology is not just a science project anymore.

existing nanotechnology products

Further reading

  1. Chopra, K. L. “Nanotechnology: hope or hype?.” Current Science(Bangalore)102, no. 10 (2012): 1364-1366.

  2. Bae, You Han, and Kinam Park. “Targeted drug delivery to tumors: myths, reality and possibility.” Journal of Controlled Release153, no. 3 (2011): 198.

  3. Maynard, Andrew D., Robert J. Aitken, Tilman Butz, Vicki Colvin, Ken Donaldson, Günter Oberdörster, Martin A. Philbert et al. “Safe handling of nanotechnology.” Nature444, no. 7117 (2006): 267-269.

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