Nanotechnology is the science of the extremely tiny. It is the art and science of manipulating matter at the nanoscale. It is a field of research and innovation concerned with building materials and devices on the scale of atoms and molecules. The study of nanotechnology enables us to understand why matter behaves the way it does on a larger scale.
How small is a nanometer? Well, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. One can imagine this infinitesimal measure of length by comparing a meter rule to the distance between the Moon and Earth — and multiplying it by three! One nanometer is about as long as our fingernail grows in one second.
The word “nanotechnology” was first used by Norio Taniguchi in 1974. However, it was Richard Feynman who, in 1959, envisioned exciting new discoveries by fabricating materials at the atomic scale. In his talk There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Feynman discussed the significance of managing and regulating things on a small scale and described how this could tell us much about various phenomena in physics. He also suggested that it should be possible to make a nanoscale machine that could arrange atoms at our heart’s desire. The advent of the scanning tunneling and atomic force microscopes (STM and AFM) in the 1980’s allowed the actual development of nanotechnology, as these tools allowed scientists to see nature at a level of detail that previous instruments could not reach.
Scientists are currently able to fashion all sorts of nano-sized objects called nanomaterials — cubes, spheres, tubes, wires, and sheets. They have unique and diverse physical properties. For instance, some are excellent electrical and thermal conductors (with graphene being the best electrical conductor of all known materials), while others are electrical and thermal insulators. These varying properties make each material potentially useful in their own way.
Current research is focusing on discovering new properties of these materials so that new applications can be found. Various procedures involve mixing different materials together or testing them under various conditions. For example, the property of superconductivity was recently discovered in graphene, which is a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms. It occurs when one graphene layer is placed on top of another in the same orientation as the lower layer so that their atoms are aligned, and one entire layer is twisted by around 1.1° (the ‘magic’ angle) relative to the lower layer. This results in two sheets with their atoms slightly misaligned and the structure becomes superconductive.
Nanotechnology has found its way into many real-world applications. The characteristics of known materials are now being altered by manufacturers who simply add nanosized items to materials to enhance their properties. They are used in making antimicrobial and antibacterial fabrics through the addition of nano-silver: a very fine silver powder that is toxic to bacteria. The most eminent application of nanotechnology in the household is self-cleaning surfaces on ceramics and glass. Nanoceramic particles have increased the smoothness and heat resistance of common household items such as the flat iron.
In medicine, nanotechnology has been used to formulate new options for drug deliveries and therapies. It can be used to produce nanosized containers for drug molecules that can deliver a patient’s drugs only to targeted spots in the body, something that conventional drug delivery methods like pills and IV injections cannot achieve — hence allowing for more effective treatment with fewer side effects. For example, DNA origami focuses on using DNA to build different complex three-dimensional objects on the nanoscale, which include containers for drug molecules. Other such potential applications include tissue regeneration, bone repair, immunity and even cures for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.
‘Morph’ is a device based on nanotechnology developed by Nokia Analysis Center and the University of Cambridge. Nokia first revealed the concept of the Morph mobile phones in 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It shows how future mobile devices could be made flexible and stretchable. It has a self-cleaning surface that repels dirt, water, and fingerprints thanks to its nanostructured surface called nanoflower.
As nanotechnology has progressed in recent years, it has brought along advances in computing and electronic equipment as well. By using carbon nanotubes, such computer screens have been created as have improved color and contrast. Companies have created nanotechnology-based solar cells that can be manufactured at a considerably less cost than traditional solar cells. Nanotechnology has also been used to develop nano-sized transistors which are, in turn, used in the development of quantum computers because quantum-mechanical effects like quantum tunneling become significant at the nano-scale, which quantum computing aims to utilize in applications, like performing calculations much more quickly than traditional computers.
Nanotechnology also provides new options for the military. The US military is conducting large-scale research on developing nanomaterial systems with different military applications and is also researching unique material properties like self-repair and corrosion resistance. Nanoparticles can be injected into the soldier’s uniforms to not only make the fabric more sturdy but also to protect soldiers from several dangers such as high temperatures, impacts, and chemicals. Nanotechnology also plays a vital role in spaceflight, as progress in nanomaterials has allowed for more lightweight spacecraft to be manufactured.
Nanotechnology is rapidly becoming an interdisciplinary field. It is a revolutionary science that may eventually change our perspective of the world thanks to its growing involvement in a variety of domains such as medicine, chemistry, and electronics. Currently, one of the biggest challenges preventing widespread usage of nanomaterials is the difficulty in cheaply producing them on a large scale. Researchers are searching for new methods for synthesizing them economically and discovering new applications. Considerable barriers exist for less-developed countries seeking to engage with nanotechnology R&D on a national level. Some of these barriers are uniform but entry costs will vary from country to country depending on factors such as the choice of research directions.