Ten things you should know about nanosciences
Nanotechnology Frequently Asked Questions
What is nanotechnology?
Major technology shifts donít happen overnight; and rarely are they the result of a single breakthrough discovery. Nowhere is this more true than for the vast set of capabilities that we have come to simply call nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is not an industry; nor is it a single technology or a single field of research. What we call nanotechnology consists of sets of enabling technologies applicable to many traditional industries (therefore it is more appropriate to speak of nanotechnologies in the plural).
A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. The prefix nano means 'one billionth', or 10-9, in the international system for units of weights and measures. The abbreviation for nanometer is nm. The term nanos comes from the Greek word for dwarf.
Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at the nanometer scale, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.
Nanotechnologies involve the design, characterization, production, and application of nanoscale structures, devices, and systems that produces structures, devices, and systems with at least one novel/superior characteristic or property.
What is so special about nanotechnology?
In a nutshell: the mechanical rules that govern the nanoworld are quite different from our everyday, macroworld experience. This allows the fabrication of novel materials and applications that otherwise would not be possible. For more details, read our section on what is so special about nanotech and why it is an issue now.
What are nanomaterials?
Much of nanoscience and many nanotechnologies is concerned with producing new or enhanced materials.
Nanomaterials can be constructed by top down techniques, producing very small structures from larger pieces of material, for example by etching to create circuits on the surface of a silicon microchip.
They may also be constructed by bottom up techniques, atom by atom or molecule by molecule. One way of doing this is self-assembly, in which the atoms or molecules arrange themselves into a structure due to their natural properties. Crystals grown for the semiconductor industry provide an example of self assembly, as does chemical synthesis of large molecules.
Read our extensive section on nanomaterials for a list of nanomaterials being developed today: films and surfaces; single- and few-layer materials like graphene; nanotubes; nanowires; fullerenes; quantum dots and all kinds of nanoparticles.
What is graphene?
We have a detailed article for you on what graphene is, complete with an introductory video.
Where is nanotechnology used today – Can I buy nanotechnology products?
Yes! Nanotechnology is becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives and has found its way into many commercial products, just to name a few: strong, lightweight materials for cars and planes; filters and membranes; targeted drug delivery for safer and more effective cancer treatments; computer processors and data storage; self-cleaning surfaces; more efficient solar cells; materials for skin, bone, and nerve cells regeneration.
Consumers come into contact with a variety of products in which nanomaterials have been processed. Nanomaterials are used in food packaging, textiles, kitchen devices, varnishes and paints. They are also used in products for surface sealing and cleaning as well as in polishing agents. Nanomaterials are also used in cosmetics. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are used as UV filters in sun creams, for example; nanosilver is used as an antimicrobial agent in textiles and nanoclay has various applications in the food packaging sector.
Rather than standing on the shoulders of a few intellectual giants, nanotechnologies get created by tens of thousands of researchers and scientists working on minute and sometimes arcane aspects of their fields of expertise in a multitude of areas; they come from different science backgrounds; live in different parts of the world; work for different organizations (government labs, industry labs, universities, private research facilities) and follow their own set of rules – get papers reviewed and published; achieve scientific recognition from their peers; struggle to get funding for new ideas; look to make that breakthrough discovery that leads to the ultimate resumé item, a nobel prize; get pushed by their funders to secure patent rights and commercialize new discoveries.
We need to differentiate between two types of nanotechnologies: One is happening right now and the other is the stuff of science fiction and way-out technology scenarios.
What we are dealing with today is evolutionary nanotechnology. The goal of evolutionary nanotechnology is to improve existing processes, materials and applications by scaling down into the nano realm and ultimately fully exploit the unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale. This trend is driven by companies' ongoing quest to improve existing products by creating smaller components and better performance materials, all at a lower cost.
By contrast, truly revolutionary nanotechnology envisages a bottom-up approach where functional devices and entire fabrication systems are built atom by atom (just to be clear, here we are not just talking self-assembly and chemical synthesis of nanomaterials but functional machinery). Unless you resort to science fiction scenarios it will be impossible to make even educated guesses as to what that future might bring.
We have posted a series of scenarios about "Nano Tomorrows" that in detail a range of plausible, challenging events – from pandemics to climate crises to international conflicts – to see how they might affect the development of advanced nanotechnology over the next 15 years.
Are there any specific health or other risks from nanoproducts?
Unfortunately, there is no simple 'yes' or 'no' answer to this question. There are lots of different aspects to consider and we have tried to cover them all in our Nanotechnology – the Risk Factors article.
Also take a look at our article on nanoparticles, free radicals and oxidative stress with an overview about what free radicals are, how they originate, why organisms need them, how they are neutralized, and what we know about the connection between nanoparticles and free radical production.
How to study nanotechnology? Where can I find a college or university that offers nanotechnology programs and degrees?
Where can I find companies that make nanomaterials or are involved in nanotechnologies?
Our extensive nanotechnology company database list raw material producers, companies involved in biomedicine and life sciences, all kinds of nano-related products, applications and instruments; as well as services and intermediaries.
What professional journals and magazines cover nanotechnology-related issues?
We have compiled a global nanotech publications directory that lists publications dedicated wholly or primarily to nanoscience and nanotechnology – academic journals, magazines, newsletter, free e-books and book series.