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What are nanomaterials?

Scientists have not unanimously settled on a precise definition of nanomaterials, but agree that they are partially characterized by their tiny size, measured in nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter - approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Nano-sized particles exist in nature and can be created from a variety of products, such as carbon or minerals like silver, but nanomaterials by definition must have at least one dimension that is less than approximately 100 nanometers. Most nanoscale materials are too small to be seen with the naked eye and even with conventional lab microscopes.

Materials engineered to such a small scale are often referred to as engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), which can take on unique optical, magnetic, electrical, and other properties. These emergent properties have the potential for great impacts in electronics, medicine, and other fields. For example,

  1. Nanotechnology can be used to design pharmaceuticals that can target specific organs or cells in the body such as cancer cells, and enhance the effectiveness of therapy.
  2. Nanomaterials can also be added to cement, cloth and other materials to make them stronger and yet lighter.
  3. Their size makes them extremely useful in electronics, and they can also be used in environmental remediation or clean-up to bind with and neutralize toxins. 

However, while engineered nanomaterials provide great benefits, we know very little about the potential effects on human health and the environment. Even well-known materials, such as silver for example, may pose a hazard when engineered to nano size.

Nano-sized particles can enter the human body through inhalation and ingestion and through the skin. Fibrous nanomaterials made of carbon have been shown to induce inflammation in the lungs in ways that are similar to asbestos .

Where are nanomaterials found?

Some nanomaterials can occur naturally, such as blood borne proteins essential for life and lipids found in the blood and body fat.  Scientists, however, are particularly interested in engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), which are designed for use in many commercial materials, devices and structures.  Already, thousands of common products-- including sunscreens, cosmetics, sporting goods, stain-resistant clothing, tires, and electronics—are manufactured using ENMs. They are also in medical diagnosis, imaging and drug delivery and in environmental remediation.

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Source Agency: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Captured Date: 2016-03-22 16:47:00.0