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What is Nanotechnology?, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Nanotechnology is actually a catch-all term for anything on the scale of nanometers (nm).  A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and nanotechnology is generally anything that is done or built on a scale between 0.1 and 100 nm in size.  To give some perspective on how small this really is, consider that a line of 10 hydrogen atoms is one nanometer across; red blood cells are thousands of nanometers across; and a human hair is about 50,000 nanometers in diameter.  Adjectives fail to describe how small a nanometer is.  (In contrast, MEMS are measured on the much larger micrometer scale.  A micrometer is one millionth of a meter, or a thousand times larger than a nanometer.)

The importance of being able to manipulate things on the nanoscale is not just that they are very small, or that they are the smallest devices known up to this point in time.  Because this is the scale of atoms and molecules, it is as small as materials may ever get.  This is near the most basic level of matter itself.  What this means is that we are not only making smaller materials, we are actually changing the nature of materials themselves on the molecular or atomic level, in order to make them stronger, lighter or more flexible.  We can make structures out of individual atoms, decide whether we want 10, 50 or 100 atoms and how we want them to line up.  This is the ultimate level of precision.  By mastering nanotechnology, we can make or manipulate materials to suit our needs, rather than using what materials are available in their given form.

Another important point about materials on the nanoscale is that they behave differently than macroscale materials.  Forces such as gravity and friction have different properties and therefore different effects at this scale.  The most prominent forces affecting nanomaterials are atomic forces, chemical bonds and quantum mechanics—in many cases, our ability to manipulate these forces is in the very early stages.  To more easily grasp this concept, consider the fact that it might be possible to make a fully functioning, tiny engine-driven machine that is only a few millimeters long; but it is not possible to make the same machine in nanoscale, say a couple of nanometers long, because it would necessitate constructing engine parts out of individual atoms.  Vital details such as internal combustion or moving gears simply wouldn’t be possible with current or near-term technologies.

Nanotechnology is both challenging and exciting on many different levels.  In order to effectively commercialize nanotechnology, we have to develop an entirely new set of rules and processes for manufacturing and design, and then create structures and machines around those new processes.  Nanotechnology will enable us to construct things that were not previously possible, while vastly improving current materials and goods.

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but it is rapidly growing into adolescence.  The initial groundwork of building microscopes that can probe into such a minute scale, as well as devices that can perform basic molecular manipulation, has been laid.  We are slowly moving past the stage of basic research into structures that have promising properties, such as nanotubes and nanowires, and progressing on to applied research and commercialization—finding useful applications and learning how to produce and commercialize them on an industrial scale.  This research began with basic applications such as advanced coatings and powders for ceramics, textiles, gels and laminates, as well as very important uses in the delivery of cancer therapies and other biotech-based cures.  Additional advanced applications such as nanoscale computing devices are in the works and will come later.  It is only a matter of time.

 

Internet Research Tip:

For easy to understand descriptions of the nature and benefits of nanotechnology, visit the website of the National Nanotechnology Initiative,  www.nano.gov .

 

 


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