Why are nanomaterials important?

Graphene molecyleNanomaterials are really small. In fact, really, really small. Yet they may have a big impact on your everyday life that makes them exciting and important to know about.

Nanomaterials are special for several reasons, but for one in particular – their size. Nanomaterials are up to 10 000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. And this tiny size makes them very valuable for all kinds of practical uses.

Nanomaterials are everywhere

Nanomaterials have been used for many different things for many years, but they are also found in nature. In ash clouds from volcanoes, sea breeze and in the smoke from a fire, for example.

Nanomaterials are, in other words, not just something made in a laboratory. But nano technology has made it possible for humans to create materials that include nanoforms. And we do that more and more because they have some advantages that substances in bigger sizes do not have.

If we for example use nano titanium dioxide to coat the plastic chairs we have in the garden, it will make the surface self-cleaning. On this kind of coating, water does not form drops but instead a sealed water film. Dirt will dissolve in the water film and the next heavy shower will simply remove the dirt and clean the seats.

Size matters, but is not the only important thing

So it is all about size, isn’t it? Yes and no. When a material becomes a nanomaterial is not so simple. A nanomaterial may have different properties compared to the same substance in bulk form. That means that a material could change when it goes from bulk to nanoform, but at what size that happens varies depending on the substance.

So what is it, exactly?

That is also one of the reasons why it has been so difficult to agree on a definition for nanomaterials. The European Commission has defined nanomaterials as something containing particles which are 1 to 100 nanometres long. In comparison, the virus that hides on your door handle and might give you flu is 100 nanometres long.

Others argue that it is actually not the size that is the most important thing. They think the definition instead should focus on the novel properties that nanoparticles have. And as mentioned, the novel properties do not always occur at the same size or specifically at 100 nanometres, which makes a definition based only on size less relevant.