Nanotech out of science fiction into rural reality

Last updated 00:00 04/08/2007
SIZE MATTERS: Kiwi farmers should prepare to use nanotechnology in their work, experts say.

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Nanotechnology is not science fiction – and New Zealand farmers need to be gearing up to take advantages of the opportunities it will offer, agricultural economists say.

"A willingness to explore new technologies will improve the financial viability of our primary and downstream industries," the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) said yesterday.

The increasing ability to understand and control microscopic matter down to one nanometre – one-billionth of a metre – is set to trigger new market opportunities, and the quick identification of new processes and products will be crucial, MAF economists said yesterday in their annual outlook, known as SONZAF.

As a size comparison, a human hair is about 80.000 nanometres wide, and the double helix in a piece of DNA is just 2.5 nanometres wide. At one to 100 nanometres, the physical, chemical, and biological properties of many materials differ in fundamental and valuable ways.

Nanotechnology was already being used to enhance health and safety, with new applications, in medicine and energy being developed.

"Nanotechnology could provide the basis for a wide range of innovative practices and products to help agriculture and forestry become more efficient and sustainable," the economists said.

But using nanotechnology could also be controversial and the new technologies will require new ways to control possible negative consequences and uncertainties about environmental and human health risks.

"Society's views must be clearly understood and taken into account before new technologies are used in agriculture and forestry." Possible uses included:

  • Tracing food from paddock to plate using "nanobarcodes" made of gold and silver could allow the continuous tracking and recording of the physical path meat or milk took, as well as variables affecting food safety such as temperature.

  • Nanocrystals known as "quantum dots" can bind to specific proteins in disease-causing bacteria, and emit distinctive colours under an ultraviolet light to indicate whether plants or animals are infected and need to be treated or destroyed.

  • A farm-based nanoparticle is being developed in the United States to bind to the surface of campylobacter bacteria in the gut of chickens, clumping them together and dislodging the bacteria from the intestines. New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of human campylobacter infection and such a treatment could reduce the likelihood of poultry meat becoming contaminated during processing.

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  • Coating timber surfaces with a 5 per cent solution of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide could protect the wood from ultraviolet light, but leave the natural properties of wood products visible.

    MAF said emerging technologies often created challenges, such as the control and distribution of benefits and uncertainty about environmental and human health risks, and could have "ethical implications".

    Nanotechnology is already being used in some wound dressings, pillows, mobile phones, and air-sanitising sprays which contain silver nanoparticles for their antibacterial activity.

    Some golf clubs and skis contain carbon nanotubes and nanocrystals of silicon oxide to increase strength and flexibility.

    And nanoparticles are being added to rocket propellants to improve the way they burn, and to motor oils to reduce engine wear.

    - NZPA

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