What is nanotechnology and why is it important?
First, a word of caution
Truly revolutionary nanotech products, materials and applications, such as nanorobotics, are years in the future (some say only a few years; some say many years). What qualifies as "nanotechnology" today is basic research and development that is happening in laboratories all over the world.
"Nanotech" products that are on the market today are mostly gradually improved products (using evolutionary nanotechnology) where some form of nano-enabled material (such as carbon nanotubes, nanocomposite structures or nanoparticles of a particular substance) or nanotech process (e.g. nanopatterning or quantum dots for medical imaging) is used in the manufacturing process.
In their ongoing quest to improve existing products by creating smaller components and better performance materials, all at a lower cost, the number of companies that will manufacture "nanoproducts" (by this definition) will grow very fast and soon make up the majority of all companies across many industries.
Evolutionary nanotechnology should therefore be viewed as a process that gradually will affect most companies and industries.
We have also compiled a Nanotechnology FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions list for you to explore.
Definition of nan'o•tech•nol'o•gy
So what exactly is nanotechnology? One of the problems facing this technology is the confusion about how to define nanotechnology. Most revolve around the study and control of phenomena and materials at length scales below 100 nm and quite often they make a comparison with a human hair, which is about 80,000 nm wide.
Some definitions include a reference to molecular nanotechnology systems and devices and 'purists' argue that any definition needs to include a reference to "functional systems". The inaugural issue of Nature Nanotechnology asked 13 researchers from different areas what nanotechnology means to them and the responses, from enthusiastic to sceptical, reflect a variety of perspectives.
Human hair fragment and a network of single-walled carbon nanotubes (Image: Jirka Cech)
It seems that a size limitation to the 1-100 nm range, the area where size-dependant quantum effects come to bear, would exclude numerous materials and devices, especially in the pharmaceutical area, and some experts caution against a rigid definition based on a sub-100 nm size.
Another important criteria for the definition is the requirement that the nano-structure is man-made, i.e. a synthetically produced nanoparticle or nanomaterial. Otherwise you would have to include every naturally formed biomolecule and material particle, in effect redefining much of chemistry and molecular biology as 'nanotech.
The most important requirement for the nanotechnology definition is that the nano-structure has special properties that are exclusively due to its nanoscale proportions. This definition is based on the number of dimensions of a material, which are outside the nanoscale (<100 nm) range.
Accordingly, in zero-dimensional (0D) nanomaterials all the dimensions are measured within the nanoscale (no dimensions are larger than 100 nm); in two-dimensional nanomaterials (2D), two dimensions are outside the nanoscale; and in three-dimensional nanomaterials (3D) are materials that are not confined to the nanoscale in any dimension. This class can contain bulk powders, dispersions of nanoparticles, bundles of nanowires, and nanotubes as well as multi-nanolayers. Check our Frequently Asked Questions to get more details.
Who coined the term 'nanotechnology'?
The term was coined in 1974 by Norio Taniguichi of of Tokyo Science University to describe semiconductor processes such as thin-film deposition that deal with control on the order of nanometers. His definition still stands as the basic statement today: "Nano-technology mainly consists of the processing of separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule."
Nanotechnology deals with...
The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) provides the following definition:
... the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel nanotechnology applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.
A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick; a single gold atom is about a third of a nanometer in diameter. Dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers are known as the nanoscale. Unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties can emerge in materials at the nanoscale. These properties may differ in important ways from the properties of bulk materials and single atoms or molecules.
We found another good definition that is practical and unconstrained by any arbitrary size limitations (source):
The design, characterization, production, and application of structures, devices, and systems by controlled manipulation of size and shape at the nanometer scale (atomic, molecular, and macromolecular scale) that produces structures, devices, and systems with at least one novel/superior characteristic or property.
The Significance of the Nanoscale
A nanometer (nm) is one thousand millionth of a meter. For comparison, a red blood cell is approximately 7,000 nm wide and a water molecule is almost 0.3nm across.
To see where 'nano' fits on the scale of things, check out our metric prefix table with examples and an interactive tutorial: View the Milky Way at 10 million light years from the Earth. Then move through space towards the Earth in successive orders of magnitude until you reach a tall oak tree. After that, begin to move from the actual size of a leaf into a microscopic world that reveals leaf cell walls, the cell nucleus, chromatin, DNA and finally, into the subatomic universe of electrons and protons.
People are interested in the nanoscale – which we define to be from 100nm down to the size of atoms (approximately 0.2nm) – because it is at this scale that the properties of materials can be very different from those at a larger scale. We define nanoscience as the study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale; and nanotechnologies as the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometer scale.
Nanoscience and nanotechnologies are not new
In some senses, nanoscience and nanotechnologies are not new. Chemists have been making polymers, which are large molecules made up of nanoscale subunits, for many decades and nanotechnologies have been used to create the tiny features on computer chips for the past 20 years. However, advances in the tools that now allow atoms and molecules to be examined and probed with great precision have enabled the expansion and development of nanoscience and nanotechnologies.
The bulk properties of materials often change dramatically with nano ingredients. Composites made from particles of nano-size ceramics or metals smaller than 100 nanometers can suddenly become much stronger than predicted by existing materials-science models.
For example, metals with a so-called grain size of around 10 nanometers are as much as seven times harder and tougher than their ordinary counterparts with grain sizes in the hundreds of nanometers. The causes of these drastic changes stem from the weird world of quantum physics. The bulk properties of any material are merely the average of all the quantum forces affecting all the atoms. As you make things smaller and smaller, you eventually reach a point where the averaging no longer works.
The properties of materials can be different at the nanoscale for two main reasons:
First, nanomaterials have a relatively larger surface area when compared to the same mass of material produced in a larger form. This can make materials more chemically reactive (in some cases materials that are inert in their larger form are reactive when produced in their nanoscale form), and affect their strength or electrical properties.
Second, quantum effects can begin to dominate the behavior of matter at the nanoscale – particularly at the lower end – affecting the optical, electrical and magnetic behavior of materials. Materials can be produced that are nanoscale in one dimension (for example, nanowires, nanorods and nanotubes), in two dimensions (plate-like shapes like nanocoatings, nanolayers, and graphene) or in all three dimensions (for example, nanoparticles).
Why is nanotechnology important?
Nanotechnology improves existing industrial processes, materials and applications by scaling them down to the nanoscale in order to 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.
A prime example of an industry where nanoscale manufacturing technologies are employed on a large scale and throughout is the semiconductor industry where device structures have reached the single nanometers scale. Your smartphone, smartwatch or tablet all are containing billions of transistors on a computer chip the size of a finger nail.