Without realizing it, the human being has worked with nano-particles since immemorial times. Carbon particles produced by combustion, simple molecules and many viruses that cause diseases actually fall into this field of study.

In the 1920s, tire manufacturers incorporated in their formulations black smoke containing nano-carbon particles of sizes ranging between 10 and 40 nanometers in diameter and that serve to improve the performance of these products. Medieval craftsmen also used, unknowingly, nano-gold particles; a metal that reduced to these dimensions shows a bright red color of great beauty which, even today, we can see in the stained glass windows of churches of the whole world.

Nano-gold particles as seen microscopically

Today, we know that these colors are due to the formation of small gold particles with diameters less than 100 nanometers (nm). We ourselves are immersed in and, at the same time, we are a product made of nanostructures. That is, if we take into account that a nanometer (1 nm = 10-9 m) is equivalent to one-thousandth of a millionth of a meter, then the atoms and molecules are objects measured on a nano-scale.

As a logical step, being aware of those nano-scales has led to the birth of Nanotechnology, which is defined as the control of matter at scales of millionths of a millimeter. This allows the fabrication of structures imperceptible to the human eye, which changes the properties of the materials and give new competitive qualities to the products.

And this technology has already arrived in Costa Rica! With a project that creates an “intelligent” label that will alert the consumer when the meat he buys in the supermarket has an anomalous amount of bacteria. The project is in the final phase of development at the laboratory of the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica (TEC).

Perhaps the great difference that makes nanotechnology a novelty is the fact that at present we have very specialized instruments such as Atomic Force Microscopes (AFM) and Standard Tunneling Microscopes (STM), which allow us to investigate more closely these nanostructures and manipulate them with greater precision and accuracy.

The properties of materials often change dramatically when they are reduced to dimensions of the order of 100 nm or less; at that point, the quantum effects become more noticeable and important and begin to dominate the optical, electrical, and magnetic behavior of the material.

For example, when reducing the size of substances, new interesting properties begin to appear; opaque substances become transparent, inert materials and precious metals become catalysts, solids of high melting point behave like liquids at room temperature, and some materials commonly recognized as insulators become conductors.

Another important property of nano-materials is the surface area that is obtained with the reduction of the size of the particles, which normally leads to an increase in chemical reactivity and, therefore, to chemical behaviors of materials that had been unimaginable until now.

With this, a field of applied sciences becomes visible, which researchers from public universities had been studying for years. And with this project, Costa Rica demonstrates not only that it can do front-line basic science research, but also develop the derived applications.

“The acquisition of next-generation equipment, access to non-reimbursable funds and the development of projects has accelerated since then”, says Juan Scott Chaves, director of the Nanotechnology Laboratory of the TEC.

Moreover, the TEC recently created the Research Program in Nanotechnology, with the participation of the schools of Electronic Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, Biology and the academic area of the Doctorate in Natural Sciences for Development.

Researcher manipulating an object containing nano-particles

The program has been declared of institutional interest and forms an important part of the TEC’s contribution to positioning the country as a generator of nanotechnology, and thus encouraging foreign investment and improving national products with its use. It increases the competitiveness of national companies, in addition to collaborating with the Costa Rican society in research projects aimed at solving specific problems using this kind of technology.

On the other hand, the concept of nanotechnology and its applications in industrial, agricultural and social sectors will be disseminated. The country must analyze its needs and see what it wants to bet on and begin to follow that line of investigation. For example, in Costa Rica, nanotechnology applications could go towards improving agriculture or health.

This technique can attract foreign investment. In this regard, international companies always look for countries where there are highly-qualified human resources. Take, for example, the medical applications of Nanotechnology; it can be seen what is done in other countries, and then how it could be used here, such as diagnostic techniques or improving access to health by speeding up care times.

In the case of the Central Government, the message is about how to promote education in science and engineering. It is true that not everyone can study this because we also need policemen, lawyers, architects, artists, and chefs. But it can motivate young people, so the country can have more scientists and engineers. That is why there should be a permanent investment in quality education.

Finally, it must always be remembered that such a vocation for science or engineering is not born when you are 17 years old, or when you arrive at the university. This love must be motivated since a child is 3 or 4 years old. In education, this is the secret!