The Nanotechnology Public Engagement Programme (NPEP) is an initiative funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and implemented by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), a business unit of the National Research Foundation.

NPEP provides information to enhance the public’s knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology. NPEP strives to enable informed decision making on nanotechnology innovations to improve the quality of life.

NPEP also assists in the translation of academic research in nanotechnology for the consumption of the public, industry and the policy makers.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at the nanoscale, i.e. a size so small that it is measured in nanometres (one billionth of a metre), to create new materials of any size that have new properties and functions.

Nanotechnology is now widely regarded as the enabling technology of the 21st century. Today nanostructured materials and nanotechnology techniques are being used to produce better composite materials, materials with enhanced catalytic activity, hardness and scratch resistance, and a wide range of consumer products (such as cosmetics and sunscreens) that improve human life.

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the study of the controlling or manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Nanotechnology makes use of tiny structures on the nanoscale to create useful products of any size that have unique properties, which arise when matter is manipulated on the nanoscale. The nanoscale refers to sizes of less than 100 nanometres, which is in the size range of atoms and molecules. One billion nanometers is the equivalent of one metre.

When particles get that small, they often show unique characteristics that are different from the same matter at a larger size. This is because the smaller the particles get, the larger the relative surface area becomes. So materials can become a different colour, can be stronger, or can conduct electricity differently, for example.

How is nanotechnology being used to solve society’s challenges?

  • Health and medicine – Nanotechnology can be used in many aspects of medicine. New nanostructures are being studied as a new class of drugs to target cancer cells.
  • Water – Nanotechnology is providing new tools to purify water and monitor water safety. This can improve access to clean and safe water, particularly in rural communities.
  • Renewable energy – Nanotechnology can contribute towards energy technologies, especially in the development of solar photovoltaic cells (for solar panels), the hydrogen economy and more efficient conventional energy production and consumption.
  • The environment – Nanotechnology may provide ways to clean toxic waste and to purify the air. It has the potential to play a big role in environmental sustainability.
  • Improved materials – Nanomaterials can be used to produce less expensive and more durable building materials, for example to build cheaper housing for poor communities.

Is nanotechnology safe?

Because nanotechnology is a newly developing technology, there may be unknown risks associated with the technology to human health and the environment. However, the safety of nanotechnology is constantly being monitored and measured as it develops. Specific research is being carried out on the potential safety hazards of different nanotechnology applications.

What subjects do I need to study to work in a nanotechnology field?

Nanotechnology is multidisciplinary. Chemists, physics, biologists, medical doctors, engineers, computer scientists and people from many more disciplines can all work in nanotechnology.

At school level, doing well in mathematics and science is essential to be able to enter university to study one of the disciplines mentioned.

At this stage there are no specialised degrees in nanotechnology, but one can study in any of the disciplines that will benefit from nanotechnology, such as chemistry, computer science, materials science, microbiology, medicine, genetics or biotechnology, physics and engineering, etc.

Where can I study nanotechnology?

In order to study in any of the disciplines mentioned above, you should consult university websites to find out their requirements. Most universities offer post-graduate degrees by research projects in nanotechnology. Many universities do research by partnerships with industry or science councils or other international universities. Details of the projects available will also be found on the universities websites.

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