Nanotechnology proves that the next big thing can actually be very small. Frank Gu, a polymer engineer and professor at the University of Waterloo, is creating smart materials for applications ranging from drug delivery to environmental protection – all measured in nanometers, which are a million times smaller than the width of human hair.
Smart materials are designed to respond to their environment. These technologies might respond to electrical current, magnetic fields, pH (acidity), light, or temperature. They have the potential to sense water contaminants, extract natural resources like precious metals in more sustainable ways, and enhance medical imaging and disease treatment. These are all areas that scientists like Gu are tackling using nanotechnology.
What is even more exciting is that scientists are now starting to combine many smart behaviours in a single platform technology. As we look towards the future, Gu explains, “We are at a very exciting stage that not only can we build these materials, we can start to assemble these materials into more complex, more functional structures. Instead of performing one particular function, now we can perform multiple functions at a time… For medical applications, the physician can inject a specific dye into the body that can allow us to image and diagnose where the diseased cells are, and then we can perform treatment on the same spot. This is something that we wouldn’t be able to do right now, but it’s coming and it’s going to be an awesome product.”