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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. Matter can exhibit unusual physical, chemical, and biological properties at the nanoscale, differing in important ways from the properties of bulk materials, single atoms, and molecules. Some nanostructured materials are stronger or have different magnetic properties compared to other forms or sizes of the same material. Others are better at conducting heat or electricity. They may become more chemically reactive, reflect light better, or change color as their size or structure is altered.

Although modern nanoscience and nanotechnology are relatively new, nanoscale materials have been used for centuries. Gold and silver nanoparticles created colors in the stained-glass windows of medieval churches hundreds of years ago. The artists back then just didn’t know that they were using nanotechnology to create these beautiful works of art!

Nanotechnology encompasses nanoscale science, engineering, and technology in fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. Nanotechnology research and development involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter between approximately 1–100 nanometers.

Many benefits of nanotechnology depend on the fact that it is possible to tailor the structures of materials at extremely small scales to achieve specific properties, thus greatly extending the materials science toolkit. Using nanotechnology, materials can effectively be made stronger, lighter, more durable, more reactive, more sieve-like, or better electrical conductors, among many other traits. Many everyday commercial products are currently on the market and in daily use that rely on nanoscale materials and processes:

·         Nanoscale additives to or surface treatments of fabrics can provide lightweight ballistic energy deflection in personal body armor, or can help them resist wrinkling, staining, and bacterial growth.

·         Clear nanoscale films on eyeglasses, computer and camera displays, windows, and other surfaces can make them water- and residue-repellent, antireflective, self-cleaning, resistant to ultraviolet or infrared light, anti-fog, antimicrobial, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive.

·         Nanoscale materials are beginning to enable washable, durable “smart fabrics” equipped with flexible nanoscale sensors and electronics with capabilities for health monitoring, solar energy capture, and energy harvesting through movement.

·         Light weighting of cars, trucks, airplanes, boats, and space craft could lead to significant fuel savings. Nanoscale additives in polymer composite materials are being used in baseball bats, tennis rackets, bicycles, motorcycle helmets, automobile parts, luggage, and power tool housings, making them lightweight, stiff, durable, and resilient. Carbon nanotube sheets are now being produced for use in next-generation air vehicles. For example, the combination of light weight and conductivity makes them ideal for applications such as electromagnetic shielding and thermal management. 

  • Nano-bioengineering of enzymes is aiming to enable conversion of cellulose from wood chips, corn stalks, unfertilized perennial grasses, etc., into ethanol for fuel. Cellulosic nanomaterials have demonstrated potential applications in a wide array of industrial sectors, including electronics, construction, packaging, food, energy, health care, automotive, and defense. Cellulosic nanomaterials are projected to be less expensive than many other nanomaterials and, among other characteristics, tout an impressive strength-to-weight ratio.
  • Nano-engineered materials in automotive products include high-power rechargeable battery systems; thermoelectric materials for temperature control; tires with lower rolling resistance; high-efficiency/low-cost sensors and electronics; thin-film smart solar panels; and fuel additives for cleaner exhaust and extended range.
  • Nanostructured ceramic coatings exhibit much greater toughness than conventional wear-resistant coatings for machine parts. Nanotechnology-enabled lubricants and engine oils also significantly reduce wear and tear, which can significantly extend the lifetimes of moving parts in everything from power tools to industrial machinery.
  • Nanoparticles are used increasingly in catalysis to boost chemical reactions. This reduces the quantity of catalytic materials necessary to produce desired results, saving money and reducing pollutants. Two big applications are in petroleum refining and in automotive catalytic converters.
  • Nano-engineered materials make superior household products such as degreasers and stain removers; environmental sensors, air purifiers, and filters; antibacterial cleansers; and specialized paints and sealing products, such a self-cleaning house paints that resist dirt and marks.
  • Nanoscale materials are also being incorporated into a variety of personal care products to improve performance. Nanoscale titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been used for years in sunscreen to provide protection from the sun while appearing invisible on the skin. 

Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.

The ideas and concepts behind nanoscience and nanotechnology started with a talk entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” by physicist Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) on December 29, 1959, long before the term nanotechnology was used. In his talk, Feynman described a process in which scientists would be able to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Over a decade later, in his explorations of ultra-precision machining, Professor Norio Taniguchi coined the term nanotechnology. It wasn't until 1981, with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope that could "see" individual atoms, that modern nanotechnology began.

Nanotechnology requires the ability to understand and precisely manipulate and control matter at the nanoscale in a useful way. Working at this small scale requires the ability to both “see” and manipulate nanomaterials in order to take advantage of their special properties.

How do scientists “see” what’s going on in the extremely small world of nanotechnology? The microscopes that are typically used in high schools are not able to image at this size scale. As early as the 1930s, scientists have been able to image at the nanoscale using instruments such as the scanning electron microscope, the transmission electron microscope, and the field ion microscope, but these techniques can require extensive sample preparation and are expensive. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM) in the 1980s is widely credited with opening up the field of nanotechnology. These microscopes can image a surface by scanning a tip over the surface and measuring the electron tunneling or interatomic forces, respectively. The STM can also be used to manipulate atoms on the surface, for example to create a quantum well There is now a broad suite of scanning probe microscopes that image an array of material properties including magnetic probe, electrostatic properties, etc.  

More information on the development of microscopic tools can be found on the “NanotechnologyTimeline” and at the following links:

  •  How the optical microscope became a nanoscale, The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2014, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  • Molecular Expressions—Science, Optics and You, Florida State University

Some Nanomaterials are named for their shapes and dimensions. Think of these simply as particles, tubes, wires, films, flakes, or shells that have one or more nanometer-sized dimensions. For example, carbon nanotubes have a diameter in the nanoscale, but can be several hundred nanometers long or even longer. Nano films or nameplates have a thickness in the nanoscale, but their other two dimensions can be much larger.

Manufacturing at the nanoscale is known as nonmanufacturing. Nano manufacturing involves scaled-up, reliable, and cost-effective manufacturing of nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. It also includes research, development, and integration of top-down processes and increasingly complex bottom-up, or self-assembly, processes. Top-down fabrication reduces large pieces of material down to the nanoscale, like someone carving a model airplane out of a block of wood. The bottom-up approach to nonmanufacturing creates products by building them up from atomic- and molecular-scale components. Bottom-up approaches also include certain molecular-scale components that spontaneously “self-assemble” into ordered structures.

Within the top-down and bottom-up categories of nonmanufacturing, there are a growing number of new processes that enable nonmanufacturing. Among these are the following:

  • Chemical vapor deposition is a process in which chemicals react to produce very pure, high-performance films.
  • Molecular beam epitaxy is one method for depositing highly controlled thin films.
  •  Atomic layer epitaxy is a process for depositing one-atom-thick layers on a surface.
  • Dip pen lithography is a process in which the tip of an atomic force microscope is “dipped” into a chemical fluid and then used to “write” on a surface, like an old-fashioned ink pen onto paper.
  •  Nanoimprint lithography is a process for creating nanoscale features by “stamping” or “printing” them onto a surface.
  •  Roll-to-roll processing is a high-volume process to produce nanoscale devices on a roll of ultrathin plastic or metal.
  • Self-assembly describes the process in which a group of components come together to form an ordered structure without outside direction.
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