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A mite next to a gear set produced using MEMS, the precursor to nanotechnology. Courtesy Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMiTTM Technologies,
A mite next to a gear set produced using MEMS, the precursor to nanotechnology. Courtesy Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMiTTM Technologies,

Nanotechnology comprises technological developments on the nanometer scale, usually 0.1 to 100 nm. (One nanometer equals one thousandth of a micrometre or one millionth of a millimeter.) The term has sometimes been applied to microscopic technology. This article discusses nanotechnology, nanoscience, and "molecular nanotechnology." The prefix nano- means nanotechnology or nanometer scale.


Definitions and History

Nanotechnology is any technology which exploits phenomena and structures that can only occur at the nanometer scale, that is, the scale of single atoms and small molecules. The United States' National Nanotechnology Initiative website defines it as follows: "Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications." Such phenomena include quantum confinement--which can result in different electromagnetic and optical properties of a material between nanoparticles and the bulk material, the Gibbs-Thomson effect--which is the lowering of the melting point of a material when it is nanometers in size, and such structures including carbon nanotubes. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are an extension of the field of materials science, and materials science departments at universities around the world in conjunction with physics, mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and chemical engineering departments are leading the breakthroughs in nanotechnology. Few technologies branded with the term 'nano' actually fit this definition, and there is a danger that a nano bubble will form since it has become a buzzword used by scientists and entrepreneurs to garner funding, regardless of (and usually despite a lack of) interest in the transformative possibilities of genuine work. On the other hand, some have argued that the publicity and competence in related areas generated by supporting such 'soft nano' projects is valuable, even if indirect, progress towards genuine nanotechnology.

The first mention of some of the distinguishing concepts in nanotechnology (but predating use of that name) was in "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", a talk given by Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting 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, so on down to the needed scale. In the course of this, he noted, scaling issues would arise from the changing magnitude of various physical phenomena: gravity would become less important, surface tension and Van der Waals attraction would become more important, etc. This basic idea appears feasible, and exponential assembly enhances it with parallelism to produce a useful quantity of end products.

The term "nanotechnology" was defined by Tokyo Science University professor Norio Taniguchi in a 1974 paper (N. Taniguchi, "On the Basic Concept of 'Nano-Technology'," Proc. Intl. Conf. Prod. Eng. Tokyo, Part II, Japan Society of Precision Engineering, 1974.) as follows: "'Nano-technology' mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule." In the 1980s the basic idea of this definition was explored in much more depth by Dr. Eric Drexler, who promoted the technological significance of nano-scale phenomena and devices through speeches and the books Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, (ISBN 0-471-57518-6), and so the term acquired its current sense.

Nanotechnology came to be considered in recent years to address the problems the semiconductor industry is facing and anticipating in increasing performing according to Moore's Law]. In the field of microelectronics, the drive towards miniaturization continues and transistor gate lengths of 65 nm are routinely fabricated in prototype circuits. The device density of modern computer electronics (i.e. the number of transistors per unit area) has grown exponentially, and this trend is expected to continue for some time (see Moore's law). However, both economics and fundamental electronic limitations prevent this trend from continuing indefinitely. Thus, since technologies in use on chips in 2005 are already at the 65nm scale and becoming more and more difficult to further miniaturize, it may require breakthroughs in nanotechnology to continue to see the constant increases in speed and decreases in price for computers that many take for granted. The problems facing the semiconductor industry are outlined in the "semiconductor roadmap," and many will ultimately require solutions which involve completely novel nano-scale devices and phenomena to achieve higher device densities semiconductor roadmap. Microchips have consistently gotten smaller, faster, and cheaper at once because creating smaller devices allows them to have a smaller capacitance, which allows greater switching speeds and thus processor clock speeds; in turn, the ability to pack more of these smaller transistors into a given area means greater economies of scale lead to cheaper chips.

More broadly, nanotechnology includes the many techniques used to create structures at a size scale below 100 nm, including those used for fabrication of nanowires, those used in semiconductor fabrication such as deep ultraviolet lithography, electron beam lithography, focused ion beam machining, atomic layer deposition, and molecular vapor deposition, and further including molecular self-assembly techniques such as those employing di-block copolymers. It should be noted, however, that all of these techniques preceeded the nanotech era, and are extensions in the development of scientific advancements rather than techniques which were devised with the sole purpose of creating nanotechnology or which were results of nanotechnology research.

The term nanoscience is used to describe the interdisciplinary fields of science devoted to the study of nanoscale phenomena employed in nanotechnology. This is the world of atoms, molecules, macromolecules, quantum dots, and macromolecular assemblies, and is dominated by surface effects such as Van der Waals force attraction, hydrogen bonding, electronic charge, ionic bonding, covalent bonding, hydrophobicity, hydrophilicity, and quantum mechanical tunneling, to the virtual exclusion of macro-scale effects such as turbulence and inertia. For example, the vastly increased ratio of surface area to volume opens new possibilities in surface-based science, such as catalysis.

The term nanotechnology is sometimes conflated with molecular nanotechnology (also known as "MNT"), a theoretical advanced form of nanotechnology believed by some to be achievable at some point in the future, based on productive nanosystems. Molecular nanotechnology would fabricate precise structures using mechanosynthesis to perform molecular manufacturing. Molecular nanotechnology, though not yet existent, is expected to have a great impact on society if realized.

New materials, devices, technologies

As science becomes more sophisticated it naturally enters the realm of what is arbitrarily labeled nanotechnology. The essence of nanotechnology is that as we scale things down they start to take on novel characteristics. Nanoparticles (clusters at nanometre scale), for example, have very interesting properties and have proved useful as catalysts and in other uses since, for example when Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber in 1839 or when the Mesoamericans achieved the same result some 2400 years earlier. If we ever do make nanobots, they will not be scaled down versions of contemporary robots. It is the same scaling effects that make nanodevices so special that prevent this. Nanoscaled devices will probably bear much stronger resemblance to nature's nanodevices: proteins, DNA, membranes etc. Supramolecular assemblies are a good example of this

One fundamental characteristic of nanotechnology is that nanodevices self-assemble. That is, they build themselves from the bottom up. Scanning probe microscopy is an important technique both for characterization and synthesis of nanomaterials. Atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes can be used to look at surfaces and to move atoms around. By designing different tips for these microscopes, they can be used for carving out structures on surfaces and to help guide self-assembling structures. Atoms can be moved around on a surface with scanning probe microscopy techniques, but it is cumbersome, expensive and very time-consuming, and for these reasons it is quite simply not feasible to construct nanoscaled devices atom by atom. You don't want to assemble a billion transistors into a microchip by taking an hour to place each transistor, but these techniques can be used for things like helping to guide self-assembling systems.

One of the problems facing nanotechnology is how to assemble atoms and molecules into smart materials and working devices. Supramolecular chemistry is here a very important tool. Supramolecular chemistry is the chemistry beyond the molecule, and molecules are being designed to self-assemble into larger structures. In this case, biology is a place to find inspiration: cells and their pieces are made from self-assembling biopolymers such as proteins and protein complexes. One of the things being explored is synthesis of organic molecules by adding them to the ends of complementary DNA strands such as ----A and ----B, with molecules A and B attached to the end; when these are put together, the complementary DNA strands hydrogen bonds into a double helix, ====AB, and the DNA molecule can be removed to isolate the product AB.

Natural or man-made particles or artifacts often have qualities and capabilities quite different from their macroscopic counterparts. Gold, for example, which is chemically inert at normal scales, can serve as a potent chemical catalyst at nanoscales.

"Nanosize" powder particles (a few nanometres in diameter, also called nano-particles) are potentially important in ceramics, powder metallurgy, the achievement of uniform nanoporosity, and similar applications. The strong tendency of small particles to form clumps ("agglomerates") is a serious technological problem that impedes such applications. However, a few dispersants such as ammonium citrate (aqueous) and imidazoline or oleyl alcohol (nonaqueous) are promising additives for deagglomeration. (Those materials are discussed in "Organic Additives And Ceramic Processing," by D. J. Shanefield, Kluwer Academic Publ., Boston.)

In October 2004, researchers at the University of Manchester succeeded in forming a small piece of material only 1 atom thick called graphene.[1] Robert Freitas has suggested that graphene might be used as a deposition surface for a diamondoid mechanosynthesis tool.[2]

As of August 23 2004, Stanford University has been able to construct a transistor from single-walled carbon nanotubes and organic molecules. These single-walled carbon nanotubes are basically a rolled up sheet of carbon atoms. They have accomplished creating this transistor making it two nanometers wide and able to maintain current three nanometers in length. To create this resistor they cut metallic nanotubes in order to form electrodes, and afterwards placed one or two organic materials to form a semiconducting channel between the electrodes. It is projected that this new achievement will be available in different applications in two to five years. reported on March 1st 2005 that Intel is preparing to introduce processors with features measuring 65 nanometers. The company’s current engineers believe that 5 nanometer processes are actually proving themselves to be more and more feasible. The company showed pictures of these transistor prototypes measuring 65, 45, 32, and 22 nanometers. However, the company spoke about how their expectations for the future are for new processors featuring 15,10, 7, and 5 nanometers.

Currently the prototypes use CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductors); however, according to Intel smaller scales will rely on quantum dots, polymer layers, and nanotube technology. writes about the use of plasmons in the world. Plasmons are waves of electrons traveling along the surface of metals. They have the same frequency and electromagnetic field as light; however, the sub-wavelength size allows them to use less space. These plasmons act like light waves in glass on metal, allowing engineers to use any of the same tricks such as multiplexing, or sending multiple waves. With the use of plasmons information can be transferred through chips at an incredible speed; however, these plasmons do have drawbacks. For instance, the distance plasmons travel before dying out depends on the metal, and even currently they can travel several millimeters, while chips are typically about a centimeter across from each other. In addition, the best metal currently available for plasmons to travel farther is aluminum. However, most industries that manufacture chips use copper over aluminum since it is a better electrical conductor. Furthermore, the issue of heat will have to be looked upon. The use of plasmons will definitely generate heat but the amount is currently unknown.

Further developments in the field of nanotechnology focuses on the oscillation of a nanomachine for telecommunication. The article states that in Boston an antenna-like sliver of silicon one-tenth the width of a human hair oscillated in a lab in a Boston University basement. This team led by Professor Pritiraj Mohanty developed the sliver of silicon. Since the technology functions at the speeds of gigahertz this could help make communication devices smaller and exchange information at gigahertz speeds. This nanomachine is comprised of 50 billion atoms and is able to oscillate at 1.49 billion times per second. The antenna moves over a distance of one-tenth of a picometer.

Radical nanotechnology

Radical nanotechnology is a term given to the hypothetical idea of sophisticated nanoscale machines operating on the molecular scale[3]. By the countless examples found in biology it is currently known that billions of years of evolutionary feedback can produce sophisticated, stochastically optimized biological machines, and it is hoped that radical nanotechnology will make possible their construction by some shorter means, perhaps using biomimetic principles. However, it has been suggested by K Eric Drexler and other researchers that radical nanotechnology, although initially implemented by biomimetic means, might ultimately be based on mechanical engineering principles.

Drexler's idea of a diamondoid molecular nanotechnology is controversial, but determining a set of pathways for its development is now an objective of a broadly based technology roadmap project [4] led by Battelle (the manager of several U.S. National Laboratories) and the Foresight Institute. That roadmap should be developed by late 2006.

Interdisciplinary ensemble

A definitive feature of nanotechnology is that it constitutes an interdisciplinary ensemble of several fields of the natural sciences that are, in and of themselves, actually highly specialized. Thus, physics plays an important role—alone in the construction of the microscope used to investigate such phenomena but above all in the laws of quantum mechanics. Achieving a desired material structure and certain configurations of atoms brings the field of chemistry into play. In medicine, the specifically targeted deployment of nanoparticles promises to help in the treatment of certain diseases. Here, science has reached a point at which the boundaries separating discrete disciplines become blurred, and it is for precisely this reason that nanotechnology is also referred to as a convergent technology.

Potential risks


An often cited worst-case scenario is "grey goo", a hypothetical substance into which the surface objects of the earth might be transformed by self-replicating nanobots running amok, a process which has been termed global ecophagy. Defenders point out that smaller objects are more susceptible to damage from radiation and heat (due to greater surface area-to-volume ratios): nanomachines would quickly fail when exposed to harsh climates. This argument depends on the speed of which such nanomachines might be able to reproduce.

Recently, new analysis has shown that this "grey goo" danger is less likely than originally thought. K. Eric Drexler considers an accidental "grey goo" scenario extremely unlikely and says so in later editions of Engines of Creation. The "grey goo" scenario begs the Tree Sap Answer: what chances exist that one's car could spontaneously mutate into a wild car, run off-road and live in the forest off tree sap? However, other long-term major risks to society and the environment have been identified.

A variant on this is "Green Goo", a scenario in which nanobiotechnology creates a self-replicating nano machine which consumes all organic particles, living or dead, creating a slime -like non-living organic mass (Green Goo: Nanotechnology Comes Alive! 23 January 2003,


For the near-term, critics of nanotechnology point to the potential toxicity of new classes of nanosubstances that could adversely affect the stability of cell walls or disturb the immune system when inhaled or digested [5]. Objective risk assessment can profit from the bulk of experience with long-known microscopic materials like carbon soot or asbestos fibres.

There is a possibility that nanoparticles in drinking water could be dangerous to humans and/or other animals. Colon cells exposed to nano titanium dioxide particles have been found to decay at a quicker than normal rate (Nanomaterial, 4 September 2005). Titanium dioxide nanoparticles are often used in sunscreens, as they appear transparent, compared to natural titanium dioxide particles, which appear white (Big opportunities for small particles 23 April 2001, .

Nanotechnology in fiction

In movies and TV series:

In Manga:

In video games:

  • Deus Ex: The player character, JC Denton, and several other characters, are augmented by nanotechnology. A fair amount of information about nanotechnology can be read in-game.
  • Deus Ex: Invisible War
  • Everything or Nothing
  • Jets'n'Guns: One of the devices purchasable for the T-MIG 226 allows nanobots to repair the ship's hull when the heating level drops to zero. With upgrades they work faster.
  • System Shock 2: Nanites are used as currency to purchase items from replicators, which form the items from the nanites. Nanites are also directly used to perform certain tasks.
  • Neocron
  • Freelancer: Nanobots used to repair ship hulls.
  • Anarchy Online
  • Metal Gear Solid
  • Ratchet & Clank series
  • Planetside Nanites
  • Hostile Waters
  • Total Annihilation and expansions: The commander and various construction units and buildings make use of the "nanolathe" which is essentially a stream of nano-robots that link together to create complex war machinery.
  • Xenogears
  • Red Faction 2: Although the technology used to create the supersoldiers is called nanotechnology, it is never revealed whether it works as true nanotechnology.
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty: Raiden, main character in the Plant Chapter, has nanomachines that can apparently heal open wounds if the player has Raiden stand or lay still. They also work in a way to retranslate certain words. For example, when the Ninja tells Raiden that she works for The Patriots, Raiden hears the name, La-li-lu-le-lo.

In books:

See also

Relevant individuals


External links


Journals and News


Nanotechnology and Society


Scientists in the Field

Dr. David G. Grier, of New York University, has developed a method of rapidly modulating laser beams via a dynamic spatial light modulator (SLM) in the form of a phase only hologram. (


  • Daniel J. Shanefield (1996) Organic Additives And Ceramic Processing, Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 0792397657

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