|Rachael loved her sparkly new nanodiamond ring.
Illustrated by Mike McRae
From CSIRO Science by email. If you had a watch with glowing hands in the early 20th century, there is a good chance it was painted with a newly discovered element called ‘radium’. Radioactive chemicals such as this were used in everything from clocks to toothpaste to health tonics. The technology might have been new and exciting, but was also potentially dangerous. Workers who painted those watch hands fell ill, most of them dying of cancer.
Of course, today’s world wouldn’t be the same had we never discovered radioactivity. It’s used in medical diagnostics, scientific research and technology such as smoke alarms. However it’s vital that we remain cautious about new discoveries to reduce any possible risks they pose.
Amanda Barnard was presented with one of the 2009 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science for her work on nanotechnology. Researchers have understood for a long time that a material can behave differently depending on whether you have a big chunk of it, or a tiny piece. For example, specks of gold only a few nanometres across look purple rather than bright yellow.
Amanda’s computer models attempt to predict what certain nanoparticles will do in different environments. Knowing how chemicals behave when they are so tiny is important as we find more applications for them. While they might be safe in some circumstances, combining them with UV light, changing the temperature or adding other chemicals could lead to unforeseen problems.
Her current work involves exploring how tiny diamonds might be used to deliver drugs to the right part of the body. Modelling the way nanoparticle diamonds move in an electrical field might help reduce the amount of chemotherapy cancer patients need.
Technology always poses a range of problems as well as useful outcomes. With the help of super computers and researchers like Amanda, it’s possible to avoid the dangers while still getting the benefits from new discoveries.