Nanotechnology is the term given to the study of matter control at an atomic and molecular level. Nanotechnology is loosely defined as structures, which are smaller than 100 nanometres also known as 10-9.
One of the prominent problems still facing nanotechnology is how it should be defined. Most definitions include the study and control of phenomena and materials, which are smaller then 100nm. It is often stated that the average human hair is 80,000nm wide giving a perspective of the scale that nanotechnologists work at.
Many argue that any definition of nanotechnology must include a reference to molecular systems and devices. Many nanotechnology ‘purists’ even go as far to say that the definition must contain a reference to ‘functional systems’.
Maybe the easiest way to form a definition about nanotechnology is to ask academics in the field how they themselves would define the field that they work in. This has been done in the inaugural issue of Nature Nanotechnology, which has asked 13 researchers from a variety of fields what nanotechnology means to them.
Picture courtesy of DOE.
Some experts caution against a definition of Nanotechnology based on size, which would rule out many materials and devices including pharmaceuticals.
Highlighted as an important factor to add to the definition is that nano-structures must be man-made. Otherwise the definition would have to include every natural bio-molecule, in effect redefining much of what occurs in chemistry and molecular biology into ‘nanotechnology’.
The most important determinant is that a nano-structure must posses the important size-dependent quantum effects that are exclusively due to its nano-scale size.
A great definition has come from Nanowerk defining nanotechnology as:
‘The study of phenomena and manipulation of materials at atomic, molecular and macromolecular scales, where properties differ significantly from those at a larger scale; and nanotechnologies as the design, characterisation, production and application of structures, devices and systems by controlling shape and size at the nanometer scale.’
What is the significance of the Nano-scale?
People are interested in the nano-scale as at this scale the way materials act begins to differ to the way materials of a larger scale would usually act.
But nanotechnology is not a new thing, chemists have been creating polymers from nano-scale materials, nanotechnology has been used to create the features on computer chips for over 20 years now. However, new developments in the field have allowed the examination and manipulation of materials at the nano-scale, which has allowed the development of nanotechnology as a new and exciting field.
Video Introduction to Nanotechnology from Richard Feynman’s classic lecture in 1959 entitled ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom – An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics.’
The properties of materials change at the nano-scale due to the difference of properties, which are described by quantum physics. For example materials of grain sizes around 10nm may be as much as seven times as tough as their ordinary counterparts with grain sizes bigger then 100nm.
Nanomaterials have a larger surface area compared to the same mass of material produced in a larger form, making these materials more chemically reactive, changing their strength or electrical properties.
How can Nanotechnology be used?
To date nanotechnology has been used in coatings for surfaces i.e. self-cleaning windows, in electronics, cosmetics and environmental applications. The ability to engineer precisely at the nano-scale has had huge benefits for the production of industrial components for information and communication technologies, automotive and aerospace industries.
A very exciting new avenue for nanotechnology is its application into a clinical setting to create new avenues for treating and possibly preventing disease. – CT