Say it: nanotechnology.
The word alone sounds intriguing, futuristic. But what is nanotechnology?
In simple terms, nanotechnology is understanding and controlling matter on a molecular scale—at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers.
“Nano,” derived from the Greek word for dwarf, in modern terms refers to something that is one-billionth of a meter. For visualization purposes, a piece of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanotechnology deals with individual atoms and molecules comprising matter—from ingredients in the foods we eat to the materials we build with.
Over the past few decades, the study of nanoscience has shown that the behavior and properties of materials can be very different at the nanoscale. Some of these have a greater surface relative to their volume than larger-scale materials. Others conduct electricity and heat better. Others still possess superior strength or display unusual, but useful behaviors, such as converting light to heat or changing their shape or color.
The ability to manipulate and exploit individual atoms and molecules, or create new materials from them, opens the door to potential applications in areas such as computing, transportation, medicine, food packaging, structural engineering, and agriculture, to name just a few.
USDA is one of 26 Federal departments or agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal research and development program originally proposed by President Clinton in 2000 and supported by Presidents Bush and Obama. On February 20, USDA will host a session at its Agricultural Outlook Forum focusing on the implications of nanotechnology in agriculture and forestry. Lloyd Whitman of the National Institute of Standards and Technology will introduce the session and provide an overview of the NNI as Interim Director.
Other presenters are:
- Bosoon Park, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), discussing progress on nanoscale biosensors to detect Salmonella bacteria and the toxins they produce that cause foodborne illness
- Maria De Rosa, Carleton University, discussing the potential of nucleic acids to stick to (and thus to tag or identify) targets such as harmful viruses and mycotoxins, which can contaminate crops and food
- Peter Sutovsky, University of Missouri, discussing nanotech applications in animal breeding
- Sean Ireland, Verso Paper Corporation, highlighting his company’s collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service (FS), to develop nanocellulose materials from forestry products, and
- Norman Scott, Cornell University, who will discuss future nanotech challenges and opportunities.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) also issues grants supporting nanotechnology research and development. Visit the links below to learn more about each.