Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Miracle material or danger?

One of the definite big technologies of the future which will revolutionise the world in a whole raft of different applications is nanotechnology.  Within that, carbon nanotubes are probably the most discussed and researched material; indeed I have written several blog entries about these already.  They are indeed a revolutionary miracle material able to be applied in so many ways to overcome limitations of existing materials in today's world.  

In the past, another material was once hailed as a miracle with applications in so many ways, particularly in respect of durability against electrical, chemical and fire damage.  That material was asbestos.  It wasn't understood at the time however that the tiny fibres it consisted of could easily get airborne and once breathed in by humans, would cause devastating suffering including cancers of the lung and mesothelioma for example.  Over 100,000 people died as a result of this and since then the use of asbestos has now been prohibited or very carefully limited in most of the developed world.

Carbon nanotubes share much of the promise that asbestos did way back, but also share some of the dangers.   Already there are applications in paint substances to produce durable coatings for surfaces which are self-cleaning, and they are being woven into fabrics and used to create smart clothing.  The market is estimated to reach $2 billion by 2014.   The nanotubes' needle characteristics also resemble the asbestos fibres and so now research is being carried out to see if people exposed to large amounts of them might be susceptible to similar lung diseases such as cancer.  Let us hope that this revolutionary material does not become the asbestos story all over again.  

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