Our comprehensive introduction to nanotechnology and nanoscience
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What is nanotechnology? – Definition
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.
So what exactly is nanotechnology? One of the problems facing this technology is the confusion about its definition. Most definitions 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 pharamaceutical 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 Initiatve (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.