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Tiny science providing big answers

Published: 11:31AM Friday August 19, 2005 Source: Reuters

Fancy a shirt or blouse that never needs ironing, that self-cleans and changes colour to the shade of your choice?

Through nanotechnology, we may one day be buying clothes with all these features.

The science of the tiny, which deals with the minute world of atoms, is creating smarter products covering almost every facet of life. Most importantly, it is helping scientists create potential cures for some of our biggest health challenges.

Nanotechnology is the creation of things on the 'nano' scale, based on the measurement of a nanometre, or one billionth of a metre.

Bill Price, professor of nanotechnology at the University of Western Sydney, said by manipulating atoms and molecules, scientists are creating smarter materials and devices with new electrical, chemical, and even mechanical characteristics.

"One day they may be able to create a suit that can iron and clean itself and even change colour," Professor Price said.

Scientists are shrinking technology at an ever-increasing rate, and the day is in sight when electronic components will be up to 1,000 times smaller than they are now. Computers will be smaller still, and the ever-popular iPod could  become a simple ear plug in the future.

Price, who this week received a $440,000 state government award for research into nanobiotechnology, said we're just starting to wake up to the endless possibilities.

"The most obvious example (of current nanotechnology) is some of our sunscreens with nanoparticles in it," he said.

The old-fashioned thick white zinc sunscreen is now contained in the new lotions but in tiny particles.

"If you have zinc particles and they are on a nanoscale, then they can be clear," Price said.

Over the next four years, Price is embarking on a major research venture using the combination of nanotechnology and biology.

His research focuses on understanding how biomolecules, especially proteins, associate.

Biomolecular association is fundamental in all biological processes and forms the crux of nanobiotechnology.

"The association of protein molecules is important under normal physiological conditions and in diseased states such as with Alzheimer's disease or cataracts," he said.

In less than two decades, we could improve our biology and our evolutionary future with nanobiotechnology, Price said.

"Innovative science frequently attracts social fear, but with greater knowledge and understanding, people will eventually realise that we are improving our lives by enhancing our biology."

Scientists eventually hope to build tiny machines that can help heal the body. Injecting nanobots, or tiny nanoparticle machines, into the blood may become the common treatment to deliver drugs, remove cancer or repair damaged cells or muscles.

Price said future advances in the new field of nanobiotechnology could help areas from medicine and agriculture to the food industry.

But funding for such projects was always an uphill battle, he said.

"I think we have progressed quite a way but I think we need more funding from the government and elsewhere," he said.

"But if you compare, say, what some governments in countries like ours contribute, I don't think we are up there like we should be."

A lack of talent is not an issue - the problem is that science is expensive and does not deliver results quickly.

"I just think we need to make Australia more attractive so they (talented scientists) don't disappear overseas as happens a lot," Price said.