NANOTECHNOLOGY: What it is, and how corporations are using it : 1. What is Nanotechnology?
When thinking about nanotechnology is its useful to contrast it with another 'revolutionary technology', biotechnology. The 'bio' part of biotechnology refers to what the technology is dealing with, i.e. bios or life, where as with nanotechnology the 'nano' refers not to a thing but to the scale at which the technology takes place.
Put simply nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at a size so small that it is measured in nanometres (one billionth of a metre), the scale of atoms and molecules.
Its difficult to grasp quite how small the nano-scale is. To give some reference points one nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre, or one millionth of a millimetre. A human hair is 80,000nm thick, a red blood cell is 5,000nm in diameter, a DNA molecule is 2.5nm wide and 10 hydrogen atoms arranged side by side measure 1nm.
The nano-scale is nothing new. It has always existed, but until recently it has been out of the sight, and reach, of human beings. Unaided, the human eye can't see anything much smaller than a millimetre wide.
Over the last few hundred years optical microscopes have been developed that allow humans to see objects down to the scale of microns (1,000nm things such as bacteria). It is the invention and development of scanning probe microscopes over the last 20 years that has allowed humans to first of all see, and then manipulate matter at the nano-scale.
An atom is a microscopic structure found in all ordinary matter around us. Atoms are the fundamental building blocks of chemistry, and are conserved in chemical reactions. An atom is the smallest particle differentiable as a certain chemical element. Only 91 elements have been identified as occurring naturally on Earth. It is these elements that are recorded in the periodic table, for example carbon, oxygen, gold and lead.
Atoms are able to bond together into molecules and other types of chemical compounds. Molecules are made up of multiple atoms. A molecule of water is a combination of 2 hydrogen and one oxygen atoms. A molecule is the smallest particle of a pure chemical substance that still retains its chemical composition and properties. It may consist of atoms of the same chemical element, as with oxygen gas (O2), or of different elements, as with water (H2O). Examples of molecules are Titanium Dioxide, Carbon Dioxide, and DNA.
What is so exciting about the nano-scale?
The nano-scale is special in two ways:
Everything is the same
When viewed at the nano-scale the whole world starts to look the same. Everything on this planet both living and non-living is made up of atoms and molecules, and at the nano-scale that is all you see. The paper this briefing is printed on (or the computer you are viewing it on), the trees you can see from the window, the glass in the window, your cat and you yourself, everything is made up of atoms and molecules arranged in different combinations and different structures.
Biotech broke the species barrier. Nanotech breaks the life/ non-life barrier
Things behave differently
The other important feature of the nano-scale is that substances start to behave very differently when they are very small. Below about 100nm the rules that govern the behaviour of the elements of our known world start to give way to the rules of quantum physics, and everything changes. To take the example of gold, we are all familiar with gold at the everyday macro-scale, for instance, a gold ring is a familiar shiny orangey/yellow colour. The same is true of a particle of gold 100nm wide, but, a particle of gold 30nm across is bright red, slightly bigger than that it is purple and going smaller still it is brownish in colour. Not only colour changes at the nanoscale. Other properties including strength, reactivity, conductivity and electronic properties also change as size decreases.