Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale, at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications.

Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale. So how small is ‘nano’? A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. And there are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch.

Certain nanostructures can recognize diseased cells and deliver drugs directly to cancerous tumors without harming healthy cells or organs.

New solar panels incorporating nanotechnology are far more efficient than standard designs in converting sunlight to electricity, promising much more economical solar power in the future.

Researchers have discovered how ultrasmall specks of rust can help remove arsenic from drinking water.

For environmental cleanup, researchers have developed a nanofabric that is woven from tiny wires and can absorb 20 times its weight in oil.

What is nanoscale?

The nanoscale is the dimensional range of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers.What a nanometer?A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. (A meter is 39.37 inches, or slightly longer than one yard.) The prefix “nano” means “one billionth”, or 10-9, in the international system for units of weights and measure. The abbreviation for nanometer is ‘nm.’

What are nano materials? Do they exist in nature?

Nanomaterials are all nanoscale materials or materials that contain nanoscale structures internally or on their surfaces. These can include engineered nano-objects, such as nanoparticles, nanotubes, and nanoplates, and naturally occuring nanoparticles, such as volcanic ash, sea spray, and smoke.

Is nanotechnology new? Where did it come from?

Nanoscale materials have been used for over a millenium. For example, nanoscale gold was used in stained glass in Medieval Europe and nanotubes were found in blades of swords made in Damascus. However, ten centuries passed before high-powered microscopes were invented, allowing us to see things at the nanoscale and begin working with materials at the nanoscale.Nanotechnology as we now know it began about 30 years ago, when our tools to image and measure extended into the nanoscale. Around the turn of the millennium, government research managers in the United States and other countries observed that physicists, biologists, chemists, electrical engineers, optical engineers, and materials scientists were working on overlapping issues emerging at the nanoscale. In 2000, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was created to help these researchers benefit from each other’s insights and accelerate the technology’s development.

What are nanoparticles, nanotobes, and nanoplates?

These are different types of nanomaterials, named for their individual shapes and dimensions. Think of these simply as objects with one or more dimension at the nanoscale.Nanoparticles are bits of a material in which all three dimensions of the object are within the nanoscale. Nanotubes have a diameter in the nanoscale, but can be several hundred nanometers long—or even longer. Nanoplates have a thickness at the nanoscale, but their other two dimensions can be quite large.

Where is nanotechnology used today?

Nanotechnology is used in many commercial products and processes, for example, nanomaterials are used to manufacture lightweight, strong materials for applications such as boat hulls, sporting equipment, and automotive parts. Nanomaterials are also used in sunscreens and cosmetics.Nanostructured products are used to produce space-saving insulators which are useful when size and weight is at a premium—for example, when insulating long pipelines in remote places, or trying to reduce heat loss from an old house. Nanostructured catalysts make chemical manufacturing processes more efficient, by saving energy and reducing waste.In healthcare, nanoceramics are used in some dental implants or to fill holes in diseased bones, because their mechanical and chemical properties can be “tuned” to attract bone cells from the surrounding tissue to make new bone. Some pharmaceutical products have been reformulated with nanosized particles to improve their absorption and make them easier to administer. Opticians apply nanocoatings to eyeglasses to make them easier to keep clean and harder to scratch and nanoenabled coatings are used on fabrics to make clothing stain-resistant and easy to care for.Almost all high-performance electronic devices manufactured in the past decade use some nanomaterials. Nanotechnology helps build new transistor structures and interconnects for the fastest, most advanced computing chips.All told, nanotechnologies are estimated to have impacted $251 billion across the global economy in 2009. This is estimated to grow to $2.4 trillion by 2015 (Lux Research, 2010).

Where are some future uses of nanotechnology?

Exciting new nanotechnology-based medicines are now in clinical trials, which may be available soon to treat patients. Some use nanoparticles to deliver toxic anti-cancer drugs targeted directly to tumors, minimizing drug damage to other parts of the body. Others help medical imaging tools, like MRIs and CAT scans, work better and more safely. Nanotechnology is helping scientists make our homes, cars, and businesses more energy-efficient through new fuel cells, batteries, and solar panels. It is also helping to find ways to purify drinking water and to detect and clean up environmental waste and damage.Nanomaterials are being tested for use in food packaging to greatly improve shelf life and safety. Nanosensors to detect food-borne pathogens are also being developed for food packaging. New nanomaterials will be stronger, lighter, and more durable than the materials we use today in buildings, bridges, automobiles, and more. Scientists have experimented with nanomaterials that bend light in unique ways that may enable the development of an “invisibility cloak.” The possibilities seem limitless, and the future of nanotechnology holds great potential.