Nanotechnology is the science of studying and producing materials and devices of nanometer size--about the size of a small molecule or individual atom. NIFA manages four grant programs that fund nanotechnology research projects.
It also participates on the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee of the White House National Science and Technology Council and the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
The emerging field of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (nanotechnology for short) will no doubt lead to unprecedented understanding and control of the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. Potential applications are possible in agricultural production (plant and animal), food processing and manufacturing, human health and nutrition, biotechnology, medicine and drug delivery, information technology, homeland defense, energy production and efficiency, and environmental improvement.
Nanotechnologists work at atomic, molecular, or supramolecular levels in the length scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers (one nanometer equals one one-billionth of a meter). The physical, chemical, and biological properties of systems with structural features in this length scale exhibit important differences when compared to those of micro and macro scales.
Three key elements of nanotechnology are: (1) Matters at nanoscale exhibit novel physical and chemical phenomena, properties, and functions, which are not scalable outside of the nanometer domain. (2) Nanotechnology allows scientists to measure, control, and manipulate matter at the nanoscale to change those properties and functions. (3) It allows integration along length scales of nanomaterials for broad fields of applications by taking advantage of the unique properties of the nanomaterials.
Currently, the following programmatic areas are being investigated under the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative at NIFA:
Potential applications of bioanalytical nanosensors include the detection of pathogens, contaminants, nutrients, environmental characteristics (light/dark, hot/cold, wet/dry), heavy metals, particulates, and allergens.
Identity Preservation and Historical Tracking of Products
Nanoscale devices and data loggers for detection of pesticides, fertilizers, and biological events significant to the final product quality for the life history of agricultural commodities, coined as "Little Brother Technology," are of great importance to end users and global trading.
Smart Treatment of Delivery Systems
Multiple applications of such systems include improved digestibility and flavor of food, nutrient application, and implantable self-regulating drug delivery systems that can be activated to combat disease long before symptoms appear. Integration of sensing systems with target searching, reporting, localization, and control systems is desirable. These "Smart Systems" will allow real-time monitoring and regulation of delivery of needed constituents (bioactive compounds, nutraceuticals, nutrients, drug, insecticides, pesticides, fertilizers, vaccines, etc.) to people, animals, plants, insects, microorganisms, soils, and the environment.
New research, including nano-filtration devices and a nano-bioreactor, is critical for the study of enzymatic processes, microbial ecology, and kinetics in communities such as compost systems. Nanodevices and materials for enhanced gene insertion and gene therapy for veterinary medicine are useful.
Nanomaterials, Agro-environment and Education
Research on new self-healing nanomaterials, bio-selective surfaces development, fundamental nanomaterials science research, modeling of the processes of self-assembly in biological systems, and nanoparticles in soil and air are critical to the future of agricultural and biological production.
Environmental issues and agricultural waste challenges that may be addressed with nanotechnological concepts include the extraction of biopolymers from agricultural byproducts and the design of nanocatalysts for waste bioprocessing into food, feed, industrial chemicals, biofuels, and energy.
Educating the public and the future workforce is a traditional strength of the partnership between NIFA and land-grant universities. NIFA actively supports graduate research programs and the use of the interesting, highly visible aspects of nanotechnology to excite young students and the public about agricultural science, food science and technology, and agricultural and biological engineering careers.