The scale of things

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SmallBy Michelle Pucci

“It’s rare to have fields of science defined by scale,” says Dr. David Juncker, Professor in Biomedical Engineering at McGill University, but what differentiates micro- and nanotechnology is all a matter of size.

Working on a microscale is the equivalent of using a strand of hair that has been separated 1,000 times. Nanoscale is dividing that further by 1,000.

Microtechnology is the scale of cells, measured in microns, and was made possible with the invention of the microscope and the discovery of cells in the 17th century. Nanotechnology is the scale of molecules, measured in nanometres, at which point substances adopt new properties and potential new applications.

“When you shrink materials down to the nanoscale, you’re getting away from the bulk properties that you would normally find,” says Dr. Joseph Matt Kinsella, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at McGill. “You’re starting to create this emergent class of new materials of properties that depend upon things like quantum mechanics, much more so than macroscopic counterparts.”

Nanotechnology can be used for different imaging technologies, delivering drugs or sensitizing radiation therapy, says Kinsella, only because these are all dependent on material properties that exist on the nanoscale.

According to Juncker, microtechnology research in Switzerland is advanced because of its history of watchmaking, but examples of historical nanotechnologies stretch back to stained glass.

“We are probably the best example of nanotechnology,” says Juncker, referring to cells, nuclei and DNA. “It’s kind of fascinating.”

For more on this topic: The future of medicine is very small

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