An Israeli company has recently tested one of the most shock-resistant materials known to man. Five times stronger than steel and at least twice as strong as any impact-resistant material currently in use as protective gear, the new nano-based material is on its way to becoming the armor of the future.
[C]ertain inorganic compounds...that normally occur as large flat platelets can be synthesized into much smaller nano-spheres and nano-tubes...named inorganic fullerene-like nanostructures or IF for short. Fullerenes are a new form of carbon, other forms being diamond, graphite and coal. They are molecules composed entirely of carbon, taking the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube. Spherical fullerenes are sometimes called buckyballs, while cylindrical fullerenes are called buckytubes or nanotubes.
A new study published in December 2005 in Biophysical Journal raises a red flag regarding the safety of buckyballs when dissolved in water. It reports the results of a detailed computer simulation that finds buckyballs bind to the spirals in DNA molecules in an aqueous environment, causing the DNA to deform, potentially interfering with its biological functions and possibly causing long-term negative side effects in people and other living organisms.
This research is far from conclusive, but certainly it raises concerns.
What the researchers don't know is whether these worrisome binding events will take place in the body.
"Earlier studies have shown both that buckyballs can migrate into bodily tissues and can penetrate cell membranes," [chemical engineer Peter] Cummings says. "We don't know whether they can penetrate a cell nucleus and reach the DNA stored there. What this study shows is that if the buckyballs can get into the nucleus they could cause real problems. What are needed now are experimental and theoretical studies to demonstrate whether they can actually get there. Because the toxicity of nanomaterials like buckyballs is not well known at this point, they are regarded in the laboratory as potentially very hazardous, and treated accordingly."
UPDATE: A new study could allay some of the fears about health and safety issues relating to carbon nanotubes and open the door for exploring the use of such nanomaterials in the body. "This is the first time carbon nanotubes have been administered intravenously and fundamental pharmacokinetic parameters have been obtained," Kostarelos tells C&EN. "It is also the first description of carbon nanotubes circulating in the blood of live animals and the first report showing blood clearance and urine excretion of the nanotubes."
(Note that this study is on carbon nanotubes, whereas the one just above concerned buckyballs.)