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.
Watch an introduction to nanotechnology, starting with Richard Feynman's classic talk in December 1959: There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom - An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics.
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 behaviour of matter at the nanoscale - particularly at the lower end - affecting the optical, electrical and magnetic behaviour of materials. Materials can be produced that are nanoscale in one dimension (for example, very thin surface coatings), in two dimensions (for example, nanowires and nanotubes) or in all three dimensions (for example, nanoparticles).
Our section "Introduction to Nanomaterials" is based on chapter 3.2 of the excellent report "Nanoscience and Nanotechnologies: Opportunities and Uncertainties" with permission of the The Royal Society & The Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK.
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