Nanotechnology is the 21st century’s scientific “buzz word”, heralded by many as the science of the future.
The technology provides solutions so minute it cannot be seen with the naked eye or even a standard microscope.
Scientists around the world say nanotechnology could revolutionise the way we generate energy, treat illness and even make beauty products.
However, watchdogs warn that the long-term effects of its daily use are still largely unknown.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the safety of some of these products,” said Simon Brown of Canterbury University.
“They’re just things with nano particles in them. We don’t know if some of those particles can be absorbed in the skin. We do know that some of those particles are toxic in the lab.”
But whether people know it or not, the technology is already part of their everyday lives.
“It’s being used in everything from your fridge to your make-up to your sunscreen. There’s a whole rang of things that are already out there and in those products,” Brown said.
On a bigger scale, the technology is providing solutions to one of the planet’s biggest problems – helping to reduce exhaust pollution.
Dr John Watt of Victoria University has been working with a metal called palladium, where it removes toxic gases in the exhaust system.
“So it takes gases like carbon monoxide and turns that into carbon dioxide. It takes nitrous oxide and turns them into nitrogen,” Watt said.
Researchers manipulate matter at a scale 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
“You can reduce something to the nano scale, change its shape and you’ll see a whole new way of behaviour,” said Watt.
The potential of the technology is vast, with scientists creating tools which work at a size much smaller than an individual human cell, said Richard Blaikie of the McDiarmid Institute.
“It’s an area that people devote a lot of time to the research because they’re fascinated at the way things work at this most basic level, at the way molecules and atoms work to make things happen,” he said.
In New Zealand, government agencies and businesses are already exploiting the potential, with an instrument which measures nano particles. It’s being sold to medical researchers at top overseas universities.
The New Zealand government is currently reviewing its regulations for nano technology consumer products, which will be released later this year.