What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to "nanotech") is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale, i.e., is the engineering of tiny machines — the projected ability to build things from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, highly advanced products.


In order to understand the unusual world of nanotechnology, we need to get an idea of the units of measure involved. A centimeter is one-hundredth of a meter, a millimeter is one-thousandth of a meter, and a micrometer is one-millionth of a meter, but all of these are still huge compared to the nanoscale. A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter, smaller than the wavelength of visible light and a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair.

As small as a nanometer is, it's still large compared to the atomic scale. An atom has a diameter of about 0.1 nm. An atom's nucleus is much smaller -- about 0.00001 nm.


Generally, nanotechnology deals with structures sized between 1 to 100 nanometer in at least one dimension, and involves developing materials or devices within that size. Quantum mechanical effects are very important at this scale, which is in the quantum realm.

History of nanotechnology

The first use of the concepts found in 'nano-technology' (but pre-dating use of that name) was in "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", a talk given by physicist Richard Feynman at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on December 29, 1959. Feynman described a process by which the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules might be developed, using one set of precise tools to build and operate another proportionally smaller set, and so on down to the needed scale.

The term "nanotechnology" was defined by Tokyo University of Science Professor Norio Taniguchi in a 1974 paper as follows: 'Nanotechnology' mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule."

The basic idea of this definition was popularized and explored in much more depth  in the 1980's, when K. Eric Drexler promoted the technological significance of nano-scale phenomena and devices through speeches and the books Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. He talked about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the most of his time ever since describing and analyzing these incredible devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction.

Applications of nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is very diverse, ranging from extensions of conventional device physics to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, from developing new materials with dimensions on the nanoscale to investigating whether we can directly control matter on the atomic scale.

There's an unprecedented multidisciplinary convergence of scientists dedicated to the study of a world so small, we can't see it -- even with a light microscope. That world is the field of nanotechnology, the realm of atoms and nanostructures. Nanotechnology is so new, no one is really sure what will come of it.

Many materials, once they are individually reduced below 100 nanometers, begin displaying a set of unique characteristics based on quantum mechanical forces that are exhibited at the level. Due to these quantum mechanical effects, materials may become more conducting, be able to transfer heat better, or have modified mechanical properties.

Future of nanotechnology

Based on Feynman's vision of miniature factories using nanomachines to build complex products, advanced nanotechnology (sometimes referred to as molecular manufacturing) will make use of positionally-controlled mechanochemistry guided by molecular machine systems.

Shortly after this envisioned molecular machinery is created, it will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications.

There is much debate on the future implications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production.

On the other hand, nanotechnology raises many of the same issues as any new technology, including concerns about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials, and their potential effects on global economics, as well as speculation about various doomsday scenarios. These concerns have led to a debate among advocacy groups and governments on whether special regulation of nanotechnology is warranted.

1 comment:

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