What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a field of science and engineering that focuses on the design and manufacture of extremely small devices and structures.

Written by Artem Oppermann
What Is Nanotechnology?
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UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Jan 16, 2024

Nanotechnology devices have a wide range of applications, such as electronics, medicine, energy, textiles and more. These devices typically have a scale of fewer than 100 nanometers (nm). A nanometer is a very small unit of measurement equal to one billionth of a meter. For reference, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology refers to any device or product that is created or modified by manipulating matter at the nanoscale. By controlling atoms and molecules, companies can develop nanomaterials no more than 100 nanometers thick and apply these materials to industries like healthcare, sports and electronics.

Nanotechnology chart showing the size of various objects like water molecules, ants and baseballs compared to the incredibly small nanomaterials.
Comparison of nanomaterial sizes. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Why Is Nanotechnology Important?

We can use nanotechnology to create materials, devices and systems with unique properties and functions. The very small size of the materials allows them to exhibit different physical and chemical properties than the same materials at a larger scale. Due to their small size, nanomaterials have a large surface area-to-volume ratio, which can lead to increased reactivity, strength and conductivity. 

Additionally, the small size of nanomaterials allows them to be easily incorporated into a wide variety of products and processes, including electronic devicesmedical treatments, energy production and environmental remediation. The properties of nanomaterials also make them useful for creating new products and improving existing ones, such as increasing the efficiency of solar cells and batteries, creating stronger and more durable materials for construction and developing more effective medical treatments.

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Examples of Nanotechnology

There are many examples of nanotechnology used in everyday life. Some of the most common applications include:

  • Electronics. We use nanomaterials in smartphones, laptops and televisions. Nanomaterials help to improve various properties of these devices such as conductivity, strength and durability.
     
  • Cosmetics. Some cosmetics, like foundations and moisturizers, contain nanoparticles that can help to improve the product’s texture and appearance.
     
  • Sporting goods. Some sports equipment, such as golf clubs and tennis rackets, contain nanomaterials that can help to improve their performance. For example, nanoclay is added to soccer and tennis balls to increase their lifecycle
     
  • Clothing. Some clothing, such as outdoor gear and athletic wear, contain nanomaterials that can help to make them more durable and water-resistant.
     
  • Sunscreen. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide can be added to sunscreens at the nanoscale, making sunscreens stronger and longer-lasting with limited health risks.
     
  • Furniture. Manufacturers create more lightweight yet durable furniture with nanomaterials. Nanomaterials can also increase the endurance of furniture’s colors.
     
  • Adhesives. Nanoparticles can strengthen adhesives without sacrificing stickiness, raising the durability of adhesive materials.
     
  • Automotive. Automotive manufacturers are experimenting with nanomaterials to make car coats more wear-resistant and enable cars to heal scratches on their own.  

 

How Is Nanotechnology Made?

There are several methods for creating nanomaterials, including:

  • Top-down approaches. Starting with a larger piece of material, we can use tools like lithography to carve or etch the material down to the nanoscale. Scientists do this using various techniques such as laser ablation, chemical etching or mechanical milling. This approach is used during the fabrication of integrated circuits in electronics.
     
  • Bottom-up approaches. These techniques involve building up materials from smaller components, such as atoms or molecules. This can be done using techniques such as chemical synthesis or self-assembly. One example of an application of nanotechnology where a bottom-up approach is used is the synthesis of nanoparticles.
     
  • Self-assembly. This technique involves designing materials or structures in such a way that they spontaneously organize themselves into the desired nanoscale structure. We can do this using techniques such as template-assisted self-assembly or directed self-assembly. We can see self-assembly at work in the production of block copolymers.
     
  • Physical vapor deposition. This involves vaporizing a material and then depositing it on the surface of the material to form a thin film, such as in the coating of cutting tools.
     
  • Chemical vapor deposition. This involves reacting a gas with a surface to create a thin film of the desired material, which we see in the production of thin films for solar cells.

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Types of Nanomaterials 

The broader category of nanotechnology can be broken down into four main types: 

  • Carbon-based nanomaterials. Include carbon nanotubes created through carbon-based vapor deposition, where heated carbon is added after a reaction between a surface and a catalyst.
     
  • Metal-based nanomaterials. Include quantum dots, which are developed by growing nanoscale crystals of two different elements in a solution under specific conditions.
     
  • Dendrimers. Exist as nanoparticles that consist of a core, inner shell and outer shell and can be constructed starting from the core or outer shell.
     
  • Nanocomposites. Composed of either multiple nanomaterials or a mix of nanomaterials and larger materials, forming stronger metals, plastics and other substances. 

 

What Are the Benefits of Nanotechnology?

There are many potential benefits to nanotechnology, including:

  • Improved materials. Nanomaterials can be stronger, lighter and more durable than traditional materials. These improvements can lead to a wide range of applications in a number of industries including construction, transportation and consumer products.
     
  • Increased energy efficiency. We can use nanomaterials to create more efficient batteries and solar cells. These materials can help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
     
  • Enhanced medical treatments. We can use nanotechnology to create more targeted and effective drugs, as well as diagnostic tools and medical devices.
     
  • Improved water filtration and purification. We can use nanomaterials to create more effective filters for removing contaminants from water.
     
  • Improved food safety and agriculture. With the help of nanotechnology, we can create sensors for detecting food contaminants, as well as fertilizers and pesticides that are more targeted and less harmful to the environment.

 

What Are the Risks of Nanotechnology?

There are also potential risks associated with nanotechnology, including:

  • Health and environmental risks. We don’t yet fully understand the long-term health effects of exposure to nanomaterials. There are concerns that nanotechnology in food, for instance, could be harmful to humans and the environment.
     
  • Economic risks. There is potential for nanotechnology to disrupt traditional industries and create economic inequality. A functioning nanocomputer for instance would be hundreds of times more computationally powerful than the most powerful conventional computers. It could give those who have access to the technology a significant advantage in areas such as stock trading, financial modeling and other data-intensive industries. A nanocomputer could also lead to job displacement as certain tasks and industries become automated by the powerful technology.
     
  • Ethical risks. There are also ethical concerns surrounding the use of nanotechnology, such as the potential for it to be used for military or surveillance purposes.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Nanotechnology is any product that is designed or manipulated by altering atoms and molecules at the nanoscale. These products often contain nanomaterials, which are no thicker than 100 nanometers and make it easier to modify a product’s physical properties. 

An example of nanotechnology is making athletic and outdoor clothing more durable and water-resistant by equipping them with nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology is used to increase the conductivity of electronic devices, produce lightweight yet longer-lasting furniture and make car coats wear-resistant and self-healing, among other real-life applications.

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