Nanonewton: The Tiny Unit of Force in Nanotechnology

What is a Nanonewton?

A nanonewton (nN) is a unit of force commonly used in nanotechnology and related fields. It is equal to one billionth (10-9) of a newton, the SI unit of force. The nanonewton is an extremely small unit, making it suitable for measuring the forces involved in nanoscale interactions, such as those between individual atoms, molecules, or nanostructures.

Importance of Nanonewtons in Nanotechnology

Nanonewtons play a crucial role in nanotechnology due to the extremely small forces involved in nanoscale interactions. Understanding and measuring these forces is essential for various applications, such as:
  • Nanomechanics: Nanonewtons are used to quantify the mechanical properties of nanomaterials, such as their stiffness, strength, and adhesion. This information is vital for designing and fabricating nanodevices and -structures.
  • Molecular Interactions: The forces between individual molecules, such as van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonds, and electrostatic interactions, are typically in the nanonewton range. Measuring these forces helps researchers understand the behavior of molecules and develop new materials and drugs.
  • Nanorobotics: Nanonewtons are relevant in the development of nanorobots, which are microscopic devices designed to perform tasks at the nanoscale. These robots must be able to exert and withstand forces in the nanonewton range to manipulate nanoscale objects and navigate through nanoscale environments.

Measuring Nanonewtons

Measuring forces in the nanonewton range requires specialized equipment and techniques due to the extremely small scale involved. Some common methods for measuring nanonewtons include:

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM)

The Atomic Force Microscope is a powerful tool for measuring nanonewton-scale forces. It works by scanning a sharp tip attached to a flexible cantilever over a sample surface. The deflection of the cantilever due to the interaction forces between the tip and the sample is measured using a laser and a photodetector. By calibrating the cantilever's spring constant, researchers can quantify the forces acting on the tip in nanonewtons.

Optical Tweezers

Optical tweezers use focused laser beams to trap and manipulate small objects, such as nanoparticles or biological molecules. By measuring the displacement of the trapped object from the center of the laser focus, researchers can determine the forces acting on the object in nanonewtons. Optical tweezers are particularly useful for studying the mechanical properties of biological systems, such as the stretching of DNA molecules or the unfolding of proteins.


Nanoindentation is a technique used to measure the mechanical properties of materials at the nanoscale. It involves pressing a hard tip, typically made of diamond, into a sample surface and measuring the force-displacement curve. By analyzing the curve, researchers can determine the hardness, elastic modulus, and other mechanical properties of the material in nanonewtons.

Applications of Nanonewtons

Nanonewtons find applications in various fields of nanotechnology, including:

Nanomaterials Characterization

Measuring the forces acting on nanomaterials, such as nanoparticles, nanowires, and nanotubes, helps researchers understand their mechanical, electrical, and optical properties. This knowledge is essential for developing new nanomaterials with tailored properties for specific applications, such as nanoelectronics, energy storage, and sensing.

Biomolecular Interactions

Nanonewtons are relevant in the study of biomolecular interactions, such as the binding of proteins to DNA, the folding and unfolding of proteins, and the forces involved in cell adhesion and migration. Understanding these interactions at the nanoscale is crucial for developing new therapies, diagnostic tools, and biomaterials.

Nanoscale Fabrication

Nanonewtons play a role in the fabrication of nanoscale structures and devices. For example, in nanoimprint lithography, a patterned stamp is pressed onto a substrate with nanonewton-scale forces to create nanoscale features. Similarly, in atom-by-atom assembly, researchers use nanonewton forces to manipulate individual atoms and build nanostructures with atomic precision.

Further Reading

Microsystems & Nanoengineering, A nanonewton-scale biomimetic mechanosensor