Nanotechnology's impact on the smart cities of the future

Chairman of the World Nano Foundation, Paul Stannard, discusses how nanotechnology, AI, digital data and machine learning will converge for a smart and sustainable future.

What is Nanotechnology and why is it so important to the future of innovation?

 Nanotechnology has helped us innovate at the super microscopic nanoscale to produce previously unavailable materials which are highly flexible, conductive, and durable. These tiny nano-instruments or particles allow us to achieve incredible advances in science, industry and every area of our daily lives.

To date, most nanotechnology has concentrated on enhancing existing technology by making it smaller, faster or lighter - but now we are now entering a new exciting phase where nanotechnology is enabling a complete change of thinking about how we work, live and play as well as stay safe and healthy in our ever-growing urban environment. The World Nano Foundation has defined it as the science of the ultra-small for the benefit of all.

How Nanotechnology Will Impact Smart Cities of the Future

If recent advances in society and science are anything to go by, Smart cities in the future are going to be expanding to accommodate larger populations and many processes within cities will become increasingly automated. There are many areas where nanotechnology is already impacting aspects of city life, and this implementation will increase in future years.

Nearly all cities are applying new technology but much of it is around enhancing the existing models or infrastructure. The real smart cities of the future will be ‘enabling’ - a complete technology transformation not just enhancing existing technology and smart networks or infrastructure. For example, with the emergence of nanomaterials such as graphene are already developing nanosensors and graphene batteries built into the road infrastructure that will charge electric vehicles on the move as well as manage traffic movements and data to allow optimum usage of time and energy. 

Smart Cities

 Cities are moving towards becoming high automation ‘smart cities’, though perhaps ‘smart living’ is a better description. Cities utilise smart technology in many of their processes already - and with automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and machine-learning algorithms we are going to see a major shift away from just enhancing existing infrastructure to a more disruptive phase of urban living.

Where these smart networks will find the most use will be determined by integrated data and machine learning tools as we move into the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0). But the potential is there to revolutionise many industrial processes, from product manufacturing to mining and process engineering, to aspects the general public would see more directly. These could include the ability to predict and improve many areas of maintenance, the automatic monitoring of internal environments within buildings (from the temperature and humidity to personalised healthcare and our environment), and more efficient recognition software for security purposes.

 Other aspects that will be a part of smart cities that don’t fall into either of these categories will include more advanced monitoring of the structural health of buildings, to effective smart traffic networks around cities. This can be used for many purposes in terms of protecting and sustaining a city both environmentally and economically. One of the first impacts on smart cities, and the most obvious, is to do with sensors. All the areas mentioned above need a vast array of sensors to provide the initial localised data points (which is then transmitted over long distances via the internet). It is only once this data has been collected that the software takes a hold.

 Nanotechnology harnesses the power of its ultra-small science, allowing these tiny sensors to manage extraordinary amounts of data across multiple platforms. For instance, the world is currently planning for 5G technology, but the new networks are based on old thinking not smart city thinking. The world is digging up its cities on an industrial scale to put new complex super fibre optic cable so it can transmit more data through these 5G networks. This technology is already being surpassed by nanotechnology before it’s even implemented.

 Nano-enabled millimetre wave technology developed by Nasa engineers for 5G can use the radio airwaves to transport data without the need for this infrastructure and disruption of our cities. Digging up our cities every few years and laying new fibre cable was always unsustainable and never smart city thinking. Nanotechnology using millimetre wave technology will create a ‘virtual fibre network’ with no infrastructure or disruption and unlimited data transfer opportunities. This advancement will transform cities and will be much more efficient to manage and future proof. The virtual fibre network is also faster and simple to install. At the World Nano Foundation, we have seen this technology in action, and it will soon be ready to deploy in smart cities. 

Admittedly, it is the engineering and software that make processes ‘smart’, but for these smart networks to advance further, they need access to highly accurate data. Sensors that employ nanomaterials possess sensitivities and accuracies much greater than non-nanomaterial sensors, and it is this initial point of sensing where nanotechnology is starting to make its mark in future smart cities by taking and feeding more accurate data into the complex software programs. It is a process that requires many parts to work in cohesion with each other, and nanotechnology will enable cities to become smarter without the major infrastructure disruptions of previous innovation ages.

 Nanotechnology is so small it’s invisible to the human eye but can generate extraordinary amounts of data. It can also produce new nanomaterials for smart living that can harness our environment for energy, security, sustainable food production, healthcare, education, media, digital finance, big data, transport and water resources.

Another area where nanotechnology will contribute to smart cities is through the Internet of Nano Things (IONT). The IONT is a similar concept to the IOT, in that it uses sensor networks, hubs to collate the data together, routers to send the data over long distances, and advanced software methods. Whilst it a subset of the huge volumes of data that is possible with IOT data networks, it will manifest itself as a dynamic tool for remote and environmental monitoring applications, as well as in personalised medicine, medical devices and dramatically aid early intervention for healthcare. This revolution in healthcare will bring advanced point-of-care diagnostic tools in the home or mobile that can allow for much more accurate self-diagnosis using highly advanced nano-enabled mobile devices that can track our health in real time. 

Graphene Nano Enabled Highways and Skyways

While the implementation of graphene-enhanced superhighways may seem far away from being used on a noticeable scale, these graphene nano-enabled roads are already being trialled over a 1 kilometer stretch of road on the outskirts of Rome, Italy, thanks to Directa Plus and Iterchimica. Graphene has many applications, and while being an additive in roads is not the most talked about of its many properties, initial trials have shown that by incorporating a small amount of graphene into the asphalt, it can improve the road’s resistance to wear. It is thought that it could improve the lifetime of roads by up to 6-12 years and moreover resist some of the climate change issues of our age.

 Nano-enabled materials are already being used to make buildings more flexible and resistant to harsh environments and pollution, including taking CO2 in the atmosphere. Nanotechnology enabled buildings will make it easier to build with better resistance to the worse perils of earthquakes or even tsunamis in years to come. 

As cities get bigger in the future to accommodate growing populations, there will be more movement across cities and again the durability and sustainability of nanomaterials will make for a smarter future. The days of city mayors and governments having to justify the cost of repairing potholes are going to be a thing of the past.

Nano Enabled Smart Healthcare

Healthcare is going through a revolution due to nanomedicine and this will take many forms, such as point-of-care treatments that need no expertise, refrigeration process or large infrastructure. This will create a new sustainable healthcare system for urban environments. There are also significant advances in the treatment of some of the most disabling diseases as nanotechnology allows healthcare professionals to offer new non-intrusive nanomedicines that will be able to reverse or manage degenerative diseases, for example.

 Diseases such as MS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s will be potentially treated with a simple injection twice a year. These new nanomedicines can democratise healthcare and allow it to become something for everyone and not just those who can afford it.

Nanomedicine is also changing healthcare with new clinical uses in drug delivery approaches, mobile diagnostics, new therapies, nano-vaccines, scaffolds, anti-microbial treatments, implants and prostheses. Telemedicine and telesurgery could also be brought about by advances in sensor networks, nanomaterial optics and the IONT to give doctors, surgeons and even patients more control over their procedures and health.

In fact, pandemics and plagues can be monitored and controlled using nanosensors, new point of care diagnostics, and nanomedicines. There are now treatments and diagnostic tools that have been approved for diseases such as Ebola and the Zika virus, which could have mutated into global pandemics, and nanotechnology will help us to become smart in managing these threats in the future.

 The BRIC report on the overuse of antibiotics in people and animals forecast that it will become a bigger problem than cancer by 2050. Nanotechnology also can take individual particles out of our food and water such as antibiotics or plastics. Nanomedicine is making a real mark on how we treat various cancers today through highly targeted non-invasive treatments.

Nano Enabled Infrastructure

With any expanding urban area, construction is a vital part of its growth - especially infrastructure wise. One of the key ways that nanomaterials will provide a positive impact is in the composites used as building materials. These extend out to concrete and cement, both of which have already been used with many different nanomaterials incorporated within them. Additionally, on the sensors front, many nanomaterials have a high tensile strength and can be used in stress and strain gauges during and after construction to ensure that buildings are structurally sound. These technologies can also manage extreme heat and cold as well as degradation, meaning our urban areas will be much more sustainable.

Even road signs are now storing data and creating greater safety and security for the smart cities of the future and their citizens. The Chinese are currently deploying nano latex inks in their road signs to track traffic movements throughout the country, this will vastly improve the environment, security, and traffic flow.

Another major area that is already starting to be utilised is nanomaterials in eco-paints, which generally perform one of two functions - the paints act as anti-corrosive coatings, or they act as an absorption medium which takes in pollutants from the air and catalyses them into greener gases (such as oxygen). Given the expansion of cities, and how much pollution they produce (and the potential increase with city expansion), eco-paints that can remove pollution from the air is likely to have more of an impact as cities grow.

Nano Enabled Energy and Water resources

Batteries is one area where the use of nanomaterials is starting to gain traction. While work still needs to be done to assess their long-term safety, the initial efficiencies and charge/discharge cycle rates look very promising for many applications.

 One of the most promising areas is in electric vehicles, which have issues with slow charging rates and rapid discharge rates. Batteries, fuel cells and hybrid Li-ion-ultracapacitors that employ nanomaterials have all been touted as the next big thing for electric vehicles because they have much better cycle and discharge cycle rates - which makes them more efficient and they can store a lot more energy.

 There’s also the possibility of nanomaterials being widely used as energy storage mediums in everyday electronics. In any case when it comes to energy storage, if the energy storage devices that utilise nanomaterials are shown to be safe over long time periods, then they will gain widespread usage as the efficiencies speak for themselves. All the nanomaterials go through an enormous amount of testing to ensure the materials are fully dispersed and safe.

In places like parts of Africa, the Middle East, and California, where there are water shortages these new nanotechnologies will transform water resources within cities with difficult climates or poor sanitation. There are still more than 2 billion people in the world who don’t have access to clean water and sanitation and nanoscale innovation is rapidly sustainably changing this for the future.

Nano-Enabled Food

Nano materials in food packaging has been well-described, but researchers are now finding ways to implement nanotechnology into foodstuffs. Obviously, there are a lot of safety standards to be met and checked before we see widespread commercial use, but nevertheless there are some interesting and exciting nanotechnology emerging. The potential ranges from using nanoscale ingredients to improve the flavour, texture and colour of foodstuffs, to encapsulating vitamins, natural foods and nutrients into beverages without altering the taste or texture of the drink.

Nanotechnology is also being used to vastly reduce the salt and sugar needed in our food and work in Europe is at the advanced stages of growing nano-enabled meat, and fish, even in the laboratory. This will have a massive positive impact on food miles, stopping antibiotics being in our food chain and the scourge of plastic particles being in our food, not to mention it could vastly reduce some of the CO2 issues, waste, and impact on grazing land, all issues currently created by animal farming and fishing. This will ultimately create a food innovation eco-system within our urban areas that will have a positive impact on our green spaces, nature, and environment.

Nano-Enabled Smart Living

We live in an ongoing digital media revolution where data holds the key to many of the next generation technology within urban environments. Nanotechnology allows us to harness this data and educate our people in real time. Our homes, clothes and even our bodies will be able to harness this nano-enabled data in real time so that we can be smart with our health, energy, food, transport, infrastructure, water resources, education, security, communications, and finances. Even our culture and heritage will be protected as well as our environment. The unique properties of nanotechnology are even being used to protect some of the world heritage sites and ancient artefacts. 

So, as we move into this nano-enabled world of smart living, we can ensure this innovation age does repeat the mistakes of past ones.


Some real-life Examples of Nano Enabled and Smart Innovation

LIFNano - Nano Medicine for degenerative diseases

Nanobiosym - Nano Medical diagnostics

MMlink - Millimetre wave virtual fibre network

Nanocomp - Nanotubes

Quantum Dots Corporation – Quantum dots

Verserien Graphene - Nanofacturer

Cityzenith - Digital Smart innovation - Digital Twin - Empowering infrastructure and city projects

Civic Connect - Creating Smart city navigation for all citizens

Nano Valley Hubs

The World Nano Foundation is working with various nanotechnology innovation hubs around the world to develop the nano-enabled cities of the future. We all know the impact Silicon Valley has had on our world over the last 50 years, and we believe Nano Valley will have an effect that will shape our thinking for smart living for the next 100 years and beyond.
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This article forms part of an extract of a speech by Paul Stannard, Chairman of The World Nano Foundation at Davos on the 25th January 2019 which is the home of The World Economic Forum each year. Paul is also Chairman of the charity World Science Aid. Other contributors to this piece include Liam Critchley a specialist writer for Nano Magazine and Greg Curtin who sits on the committee for Smart cities at The World Economic Forum.