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Sunday December 17, 2006

Nano, nano


SOME naughty people have been selling subsidised diesel, apparently, to parties that don’t deserve to be subsidised by taxpayers’ money. This is a serious matter, seeing as the Government’s expenditure on subsidising diesel has been rising over the last five years, from RM1.2bil in 2003 to RM3.34bil in 2004, RM3.33bil in 2005 and RM1.9bil in the first six months of this year. 

There is a solution at hand, and it is based on the latest buzzword in science – nanotechnology. 

The authorities are working on a NanoTag programme, which entails mixing nanoparticles with subsidised diesel meant for the fishermen and sold at petrol stations, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Datuk Mohd Shafie Apdal announced at the end of November in The Star

That’s great but how does it work? Are the particles harmful to health? Might they be radioactive, even? 

Nanotechology refers to a field of research into particles smaller than a nanometre (nm), which is one billionth of a metre. (The term “nano” is derived from the Greek word for “dwarf”.)  

The thickness of a typical human hair is around 50,000nm. Essentially, nanotechnologists are working at building with atoms and molecules! 

A quick search with Google dug up the following link, azonano.com/details.asp?ArticleID=1337, which explains how nanoparticles can be used much like barcodes. 

A nanoparticle-based barcode system would allow for “tagging of very small parts, liquids, or even other particles ... the properties of this system enable the creation of libraries of thousands of uniquely identifiable particle types.”  

At another site, (nsti.org/Nanotech2006/showabstract.html?absno=672), researchers at Britain’s University of Southampton describe a method for encoding small beads. 

Visualise a torch being shone at a sepak takraw ball held in front of a wall. The open weave of the cane will allow some of the light through to create a distinctive pattern of light and shadow on the wall. If the weave is changed, the resulting pattern is also altered. 

All that is required to identify which ball is being held up to the light is a reference list of the possible light patterns from various ball designs and, of course, a way to view the pattern. 

In techno speak, “the tagging technique is based on fabricating a nano-structured pattern on the surface of the particle, which is only a few microns in size. The pattern is read by detecting the spatial distribution of laser light diffracted by the tag. Encoding information on the tag therefore requires creating many different patterns, which can produce large numbers of unique distributions of diffracted light ? about 68,000 distinguishable tags.” (From nsti.org.) 

It would be interesting to read in future about some diesel smugglers foiled by particles so tiny that they can only be detected with electron microscopes or, in the case of the enforcement teams, a special laser device. 

“The kit is extremely efficient and can produce results in just three minutes,” said Mohd Shafie. 

Motorists can expect to read and hear more about nanotechnology in the coming years as the automotive industry is actively looking at novel and effective means to improve efficiency and reduce costs, particularly in the field of paints, coatings and catalytic converters.  

Mercedes-Benz, for example, has begun selling cars that come with a clear coat containing tiny ceramic nanoparticles that form a densely cross-linked network when it hardens, thereby providing a threefold improvement in scratch resistance, with the added bonus of being much easier to clean than conventional coatings.  

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