Understanding nanotechnology

Nanotechnologies have the potential to offer a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits. We’re committed to capturing these benefits in a safe and socially responsible way.

The Challenge

Tiny science, with big potential

Nanoparticles (or nanomaterials) are extremely small chemicals or objects with dimensions of 1-1000 nanometres. That's about an 8,000th of a human hair in width or equal to one billionth of a metre.

Nanomaterials occur naturally in our environment, in things like clay, volcanic ash, ocean spray and even milk. They can also be manufactured for use in a range of everyday commercial products.

The prevalence of manufactured nanoparticles is increasing and new developments have led to significant advances across a broad range of applications including electronic, medical, and environmental.

Nanoparticles may be more conductive, stronger, or more chemically reactive than larger particles of the same substance. That means smaller amounts of the chemical in nano form can be used to achieve the same effects, making a product cheaper, or the same quantities can be used to create an enhanced product.

Paving the way to new products

Through development of new products and processes, nanotechnology will potentially contribute solutions to major issues facing Australia, including:

  • renewable energy sources
  • increased strength in our manufacturing industries
  • secure water supplies
  • improved human health and wellbeing
  • a more sustainable environment.

There are a large range of products using nanomaterials that are available on the market.

For example:

  • car wax that doesn't scratch your car
  • environmentally-friendly motor oil
  • remineralising toothpastes that repair your teeth and fight plaque. 

The BIG picture on nanotechnology

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Nanosafety: the big picture]

[Images of different nanoparticles appear on screen]

[Image changes to show Dr Maxine McCall, CSIRO nanosafety research leader]

Dr Maxine McCall: Nanoparticles are objects or chemicals that occur in really, really tiny form of the order of 1 to 100 nanometres.

[Image has changed to show a zoomed in picture of a human hair with nanoparticles on it]

To put that in perspective, the width of the human hair is about 800 times bigger than a nanoparticle.

Nanoparticles are manufactured but they also occur naturally.

[Image changes to show milk being poured into a glass]

They occur in milk, they're generated in bushfires and they occur in volcanic ash. Nanotechnologies have the potential to offer a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits.

[Image changes to show a large quantity of people walking through city streets and then back to a zoomed in image of a nanoparticle]

The small size of nanomaterials confer different properties than larger particles of the same substance, for example they may be more conductive or stronger or even more chemically reactive and its these different properties that make nanomaterials useful.

[Image changes to show a scientist handling a sample in a petri dish]

CSIRO has a comprehensive research program to investigate the safety aspects of nanomaterials.

[Camera pans over different samples in test tubes. Image then changes to show two scientists reviewing data on a computer screen]

One of the areas we work in is developing methods to detect nanoparticles, for example to detect nanoparticles in our workplace and measure exposure or even to detect nanoparticles generated in bushfires.

[Image changes to show someone surfing and then to people swimming in the water and sitting on the sand of a beach]

We're also looking at nanoparticles and their effect on human health, specifically looking at products that humans use that contain nanoparticles.

[Camera pans over different brands of high protective sunblock]

One of these products is sunscreens and we have quite a large project to look at whether or not nanoparticles in sunscreens penetrate human skin and what the biological effects might be.

[Image has changed to show trucks and cars driving on roads and then back to Dr McCall]

Another area where we're working is looking at the effects of nanomaterials released to the environment. For example we have a study where we're looking at nanoparticles combusted in diesel fuels and whether or not they are transformed when released to the environment.

[Image has changed to show a prawn inside a petri dish the area that contains nanoparticles highlights blue]

Once in the environment nanoparticles might enter the food chain so we have a study with radioactively labelled nanoparticles added to algae and sediment and we're looking at transfer up the food chain to snails and prawns.

[Image has changed to show a man reviewing data on a computer monitor]

All the data generated from our experimental research program goes to a theoretical program where we're developing models to predict the biological effects of nanomaterials based on their physical and chemical properties.

[Image has changed back to show Dr McCall]

CSIRO's Nanosafety team works very closely with Australian government departments and regulators. The information we generate can be used by policy makers in Australia for the safe use of nanomaterials.

[Music plays and the CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here www.csiro.au]

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Our Response

Nanosafety and our research

Nanotechnologies have the potential to offer significant contributions to human health, the environment and Australian industry.

Yet, many of the same novel characteristics that make nanomaterials promising for new manufacturing opportunities could also present new risks to humans or the natural environment.

We are committed to capturing the benefits of nanotechnologies in a safe and socially responsible way.

We undertake nanotechnology research in areas as diverse as environmental sensing technology, water purification and desalination, flat solar cells and nutritionally enhanced food ingredients.

We are also investigating the health and safety aspects of using nanotechnology, and its impact on the environment, helping to inform Australian Government policy and regulation relating to nanotechnologies and nanomaterials with safety in mind.

Our work in the area focuses on nanoparticles and their effects in the workplace, on human health and on the world we live in.

We're committed to capturing the benefits of nanotechnologies in a safe and socially responsible way.

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