What is ........ Nanotechnology?

What is it?

The 'Nano' part is referring to the size of the thing being made.

A 'nanometer' is absolutely tiny, being a billionth of a metre. This is hard to imagine, so to give you an idea, the smallest atom in the universe is the hydrogen atom. You can line up ten hydrogen atoms in one nanometer.

So nano-technology is making devices at the atomic scale.

How did it come about?

It has been around for about 15 years. Maybe one of the most significant starting points was when scientists developed a device that could spell 'IBM' on the surface of a crystal by moving individual atoms around. They won the Nobel Prize for that.


Then along came a molecule going by the wonderful name of 'Buckminster-Fullerene'. This is an arrangement of 60 carbon atoms in the shape of a football. It showed that it was possible to make things at the atomic scale.

So thousands of researchers around the world started to look at what could be made. Some looked at new materials with properties never-before seen. Others had ideas to put atoms together in the shape of tubes and rods to see what they could do.

The more over-excited scientists wrote books about tiny machines traveling through your blood, fixing you from the inside-out, or making anything you want from nano-glob, a bit like the star-trek machine that makes coffee from nothing.

So what has it *really" done for us?


Nano-technology has produced better ways of delivering vital drugs to the right place in your body - but not in the shape of a tiny submarine! Nano-cages trap the drug molecules and then carry them to where they are meant to go.


Nano-particles are added to steel and plastics to give them improved properties. For example

A new type of carbon fibre, developed at the University of Cambridge, could be woven into super-strong body armour for the military and law enforcement.

Input Sensors

Nano-technology is being used to make very sensitive, tiny sensors for detecting various physical effects. For example there are now sensors used in modern cars that can detect the car being in a potentially lethal situation (i.e. crash), so allowing brakes and safety devices to be used effectively in an emergency. MEMS = "Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems".


This is probably the most significant area for nano-technology. For the past fifty years, engineers have made smaller and smaller devices; today they can make electronics down to about 60 nano-metres.

There is a bit of leeway left, but around 35nm is just about the last stage engineers can go before they have to take a different way. Transistors start to behave in weird, unpredictable ways when they get smaller than this because individual atoms begin have an effect. These are called 'quantum' effects. With nano-technology you will often see the word 'quantum' crop up.

It is early days, but nano-technology is making it possible to build up devices from atoms, so devices will become ever smaller.

Recently a scientist/engineer won the 2007 Nobel prize for discovering a nano-scale effect that allows hard-disk heads to be two thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. This is why you now see 1 Terabyte hard disks appearing.

And the future?

Renewable Energy

Scientist have recently used nano-wires 200 times thinner than a human hair to create tiny solar power cells.


Nano-technology is being used to create artificial corneas and develop new ways of measuring your health.

World Health

Millions of people have no clean water to drink. Nano-clay and nano-fibres are being used to create cheap, effective water filters for developing countries.

Smart dust

Engineers have recently made a radio component the size of a virus, so maybe 'smart dust' will become a reality where smart particles are spread over a battle field to report back to base. Or the particles are placed in your body to report back on your health.


Quantum computers, with processing devices at the atomic level, promise to be a million times faster than today's supercomputers.

Global warming

Cars are adding to the global warming problem by burning fossil fuels. An alternative to petrol is to use hydrogen. But no-one has figured out a convenient and safe way of storing the hydrogen in the car. Nano-technology is being used to see if the hydrogen can be stored inside a 'Buckminster-Fullerene' type atomic cage.

Nano-technology remains a fascinating field where surprises continue to crop up.



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