How we can tackle social issues with nanotechnology

Across the world there are a multitude of social issues which affect people, from those that are simpler to fix, to those which might take generations to remedy. Social issues are always changing, and new issues are always being brought to the fore. It is true that many social issues can only be tackled through political intervention and changes to the system as a whole, however, there are some aspects which can be helped along through the use of science. Whilst they are limited, the principles (and materials) of nanotechnology could be used to help tackle some of these social issues. 

Access to Clean Water 

Having access to clean water is a huge issue for a lot of countries where there is a lack of adequate sanitation and water purification facilities. In the last couple of years, there has been a series of graphene-based filters emerge out of both the academic laboratory and industry. 

These graphene-based filters are portable membranes that can be transported to where water purification is needed most, such as in remote areas where only dirty water is available. They can often be attached to a vessel and as the water is poured through, the water becomes visibly cleaner. These have come in the form of filter membranes made from pure graphene and graphene oxide materials. There has also been a lot of research into desalinating salt water into drinking water, again, using graphene-based materials. Whilst this is not applicable to many areas where potable water is unavailable, in areas near the coast, they could be used as an extra solution for providing clean and potable water– especially when there is an abundance of salt water around the planet. 

Pollution and Climate Change 

Pollution and climate change are perhaps two of the biggest global issues in modern day society. The issues range from smog-ridden cities to global warming causing the temperature of the plant to rise and bring about adverse weather conditions (something which many parts of the world have experienced in the last few years). 

From a pollution perspective, there has been a lot of developments within the construction (and associated sub-industries) industry in the creation of eco products, such as eco paint, eco cement and eco concrete– all of which have a much lower carbon footprint than their conventional counterparts. Eco paints are probably the most useful area because of the range of functions that are possible with these nano-inspired paints. The properties of eco paints vary depending on what they are composed of, but some can absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen, whereas others will thermally regulate the walls of a building which results in a lower amount of energy being used. 

To tackle climate change is a much bigger task, but there are ways in which nanotechnology can help. The two most promising areas are in carbon capture and renewable energy sources. Nanomaterials are being utilised as the membrane material in carbon capture operations because they are small enough to trap gaseous molecules and they can be tailored to only capture the carbon-based gases (whilst letting other gaseous molecules through). From a renewable energy perspective, nanomaterials have found the most use in photovoltaic (solar) cells at the p-n junctions which convert light into electricity. Nanomaterials are being used more and more because the electron generation and transfer processes are more efficient, which in turn is helping to create more efficient solar cells. As renewable energy sources become more efficient, the more likely we are to see the phasing out of fossil fuels– something which will help to tackle pollution and reverse/minimise climate change in the long-run. 

Greater Access to Vaccines 

Vaccines are an area of medicine that everyone should have access to, but many people still go without them and they are often in environments where there is the most risk. The importance of vaccines can often get overlooked in developed western countries, such as the UK and the US, because there are not many disease risks nowadays. However, there used to be, and the lack of spreadable diseases in the US and Europe is due to vaccines and developing a herd immunity to a disease. Even though many diseases have been eradicated in some parts of the world, there are still many countries where the spread of disease is an issue– and a lot of them are treatable if there is access to a vaccine. 

There is an emerging area of nanomedicine, known as nanovaccines. They could be a key way of delivering vaccines to remote areas as they can be used to prevent (or treat) more than one disease. Nanovaccines are nanoparticles, or nanorods, dispersed in a solution (sometimes an emulsion) alongside the antigens for the specific disease (or diseases). When they are introduced to the body (through nasal sprays or injection), the antigens invoke an immune response that can build up an immunity. The immunity of these vaccines is thought to be better than conventional vaccines as they produce both humorous and cell-mediated responses. Because these systems can be used to tackle multiple diseases simultaneously, they could be used in areas where it is harder to administer vaccines, as it would enable less trips to be made to deliver the relevant vaccines. Therefore, it would make it more feasible for rural communities to have access to life-saving medicines. 

Written by Liam Critchley