You might have seen our recent Nanowerk Spotlight on modern military nanotechnology (Military nanotechnology - how worried should we be?) and read about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. military pours into nanotech research every year. Well, it turns out that metalsmiths in India perhaps as early as 300 AD, and presumably with a much lower budget, developed a new technique known as wootz steel that produced a high-carbon steel of unusually high purity. Wootz, which are small steel ingots, was widely exported and became particularly famous in the Middle East, where it became known as Damascus steel. This steel had extraordinary mechanical properties and an exceptionally sharp cutting edge. The original Damascus steel swords were made possibly as early as 500 AD to as late as 1750 AD. What's so interesting about this? It turns out that the secret of Damascus steel is carbon nanotubes. Recently discovered in the nanostructure of a 17th century Damascus saber, the nanotubes could have encapsulated iron-carbide (cementite) nanowires that might give clues to the mechanical strength and sharpness of these swords.
Nanotechnology has recently found practical applications in the conservation and restoration of the world's cultural heritage. Nanoparticles of calcium and magnesium hydroxide and carbonate have been used to restore and protect wall paints, such as Maya paintings in Mexico or 15th century Italian masterpieces. Nanoparticle applications were also used to restore old paper documents, where acidic inks have caused the cellulose fibers to break up, and to treat acidic wood from a 400-year-old shipwreck.
These days we are debating if nanoparticles in sunblock and toothpaste are safe. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn't know about such things - but they already used nanotechnology in their cosmetics. A group of researchers in France showed that lead-based chemistry, which was initiated in Egypt more than 4000 years ago, could result in the synthesis of lead sulfide (PbS, galena) nanocrystals. With a diameter of about 5 nm, the appearance of these crystals is quite similar to PbS quantum dots synthesized by modern materials science techniques.
The just released 2007 National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) budget request is $1.28 billion, slightly less than the 2006 estimated spend of $1.30 billion. The 2007 numbers would bring the overall NNI investment since its inception in 2001 to $6.6 billion. The lion share of this amount, $2 billion or 30.3%, went to the Department of Defense (DoD). In 2006, the DoD's share even reached 33.5% of the entire NNI budget.
You might think that with all the buzz that nanotechnology creates among insiders (mostly scientists) there would be a rising awareness and interest among the general public. Apparently not so. If internet search engines are an indication for the general interest then nanotechnology is not a big issue yet.