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The revolutionary power of nanotechnology

Ever thought of powering your devices through your own sweat? How about making solid objects that are invisible? Or even waterproofing your entire outfit? Well great news now you can do all of that. How? One word, nanotechnology, which is impacting on our every day lives in ways we would have thought impossible a couple of years ago. 

Nanotechnology is everywhere, says Dr Michelle Dickinson, Auckland University senior lecturer and nanotechnology expert. For example, scientists are currently developing a way to power electronic devices by generating electricity through your own sweat. 

Speaking at the 2014 Microsoft TechEd conference, Dickinson said the Bio-batteries developed in San-Diego, California are like temporary tattoos, that act as batteries enabling users to power their devices through their own sweat.  “By shuttling electrons that come from lactate produced by the body, the temporary tattoo’s generate electricity that enables you to power something, all you have to do is keep sweating!”

In fact, the more unfit an individual is, the better, as more energy is produced, while those who are fitter have decreased levels of lactate. 

Dickinson, who has a PhD in biomedical materials engineering, runs New Zealand’s only nano medical testing laboratory.  She says nanotechnology is the process of controlling and manipulating matter at nano scale, that’s a million times smaller than the length of an ant!

The explosion of, and increased interest in nanotechnology has created a wide range of opportunities for society, she says, and it is expected to leave virtually no aspect of life untouched by 2020. 

“Nano technology has been around before people knew it existed, but now what we’re able to do, and the reason why you hear it a lot is because now we know how to manipulate it, now its efficient because we can see it.   

“We’re still not at a point where we can see an atom, but we have the technology where we can figure out the shapes”. 

Dickinson has recently been testing ultra-thin “superhydrophobicity coatings” to waterproof surfaces within her home.  Refered to as the “lotus effect”, superhydrohobicity coatings are already being used on a wide range of surfaces for industrial and commercial use such as clothing and home decor, she says. Imagine being able to pour red wine onto your shirt, or your carpet and nothing soaks in. There are even potential applications for the prevention of ice forming on windows in planes, she says. 

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The invisibility cloak

Increased capabilities with nanotechnology have enabled scientist to create objects called Metamaterials, which have the ability to become invisible. 

“We can move the atoms around in places they wouldn’t naturally go, we can change the way light bounces off surfaces, instead of light bouncing off the skin where you can see the reflection, we can make light go around it, by going around it, your eye won’t know that it’s there, meaning that it is invisible”, says Dickinson.    

During one of her demonstrations at TechEd, she made an object disappear when she put it into a glass full of water.

“The reason why you can’t see it is because the reflective index is matched with the water. What that means is that light is passing through it at exactly the same speed, in exactly the same way as the reflective index; you can’t see the solid object in the water but you can when its taken out because it’s visible in light, as the reflective index match is different,” says Dickinson. 

Metamaterials are not only restricted to light waves but can be also be used with sound waves as sound no longer has to be picked up solely through sonars and can be silenced. Great for the early morning DIY expert next door.

Dickinson says there is a lack of understanding and awareness about nanotechnology. 

“I’m trying to get people to talk about nano tech, It is in everything you put on your face from woman’s cosmetics to men’s razor blades. I think people should know what they’re putting on their face, I’m very passionate about making people aware so the public can make informed decisions, says Dickson. 

Nanotechnology is an emerging industry in New Zealand, but funding support “terrible”, she says.  “New Zealand donates 2.2% of our GDP to research and development; we are 11th from the bottom of the list in nanotechnology.

“Innovation is considered as one of New Zealand’s icons of identity, yet there is no commitment to a level of R&D funding.

“Having worked in many other countries before, it’s very hard to work in New Zealand and get funding. If I didn’t have overseas consultants who fund what I do, I wouldn’t survive here.”   

Funding restrictions limit the sector’s growth potential and prevent it from becoming a thriving market as it is in many other nations, she says. 

“If you grow the education base and are able to provide New Zealand with the talent internally, then we can grow the businesses because we will have the people who can make that happen.” 

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