There's miniaturization, and then there's nanotechnology. Global markets are growing and multiplying for both. But it's the point of nanotech to effect desired technical solutions and outcomes with ever-smaller — much, much smaller — building blocks of materials.

Such nanomaterials are any group of natural, naturally-derived or manufactured particles (often plastic), in which at least half have one external dimension in the 1-100 nanometer (nm) size range. To put 100 nm into perspective, something that wide is only approximately one one-thousandth (1/1000th) the width of a single human hair.

Nanotech's evolution has impacted a number of areas of applied technology — from auto performance and consumer electronics to spacecraft instrumentation. By now, nanotechnology has been applied in every engineering discipline, enabling significant innovations in energy, defense and civil engineering, to name a few.

But perhaps the most compelling, exciting and potentially lucrative nanotech applications lie in medicine, according to a recent report by two Italian researchers in SPE Plastics Research Online. These applications can be diagnostic, therapeutic and even reconstructive as in, say, bone and skeletal tissue engineering (a field of particular relevance in today's United States, where the population of those older than 65 has grown disproportionately).

Other promising and emergent areas of nanomedicine include the treatment of cardiovascular disease, the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, and several other medical applications that have shown promising results, whether in terms of diagnosis, treatment or both.

Of course, the long-term safety of nanoparticles remains in question. Understandably, in prior decades, much research and effort went into assuring that medically-applied nanomaterials were safe — that is, nontoxic to human cells and tissue function. Now, another focus of researchers and scientists is on their mechanical properties. These include particle size, morphology, elasticity and even surface charge.

Such traits directly impact the utility of the particles chosen for a particular application. For example, they affect the interactions with tissues of a nanocarrier (a nanomaterial chosen to deliver a medicine or other substance), and they otherwise impact the utility and fitness-for-purpose of any particles chosen for any other application.

Then, there is the question of where to make useful and accurate tests or studies of, say, particles' toxicity potential. Tests in vitro (outside an organism, typically in an artificial, controlled structure or environment, such as a test tube or petri dish) may provide only a partial indication of toxicity potential, among other factors; compared with in vivo exposures (tests inside or within a living organism), which typically offer a more natural, realistic and relevant "proving ground."

Another important area of nanomaterial application involves targeting areas of the central nervous system (CNS) — especially for alteration by agents to address various well-known disorders, including infectious, psychiatric, developmental or degenerative diseases.

According to the authors of the overview of applications previously cited, "nanoparticles may allow for the transport of therapeutic or imaging-contrasting agents across the blood-brain barrier (BBB) into the nervous system ... (that is) to achieve a targeted delivery of these agents to appropriate brain or spinal cord subregions."

Investigators are also looking for drugs that can simply do an end-run around the BBB, entering the CNS directly on their own or via a carrier (again, a substance introduced specifically to transport them). Nanocarriers are of special interest — it's been possible to combine both diagnostic and therapeutic functions within single nanocarriers.

That's what nanotechnology is seemingly becoming, on an interdisciplinary basis: a channel of monitoring and prevention as well as of diagnosis and treatment. This expanded function — or frontier holds the promise of noninvasive assessment of a number of different aspects of treatment, such as pharmacokinetics, drug accumulation and tissue biodistribution at target sites, such as malignant tumors.

Despite nanotechnology's thrilling medical applications, its other commercial and research applications are just about as astonishing — as much for their established, as their implied, future benefits. For one, nanolayer coatings are on the boards to take sensing and monitoring — and thus AI and cybernetics to a whole new level.

According to a report in the journal Tech Briefs, an engineering team at Stanford University OH is developing new, atoms-thick nanolayer coatings to "harden" sensors and measuring devices generally against extreme, adverse conditions.

In cooperation with NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the team is applying the technology to running car engines, consumer electronics and, significantly for NASA, in voyaging spacecraft. The Stanford team managed to double the thermal operating ceilings of some of the hardware in smartphones and laptops from roughly 300 degrees C to roughly 600 degrees C.

The researchers want to run the hardware being measured by these devices and others at high temperatures — soundly burn them in to estimate their implied durability over many years in space. Hence NASA's involvement with the team.

This alone shows that when it comes to nanotech's potential, the sky may not be the limit.