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See History of nanotechnology for historically relevant information. List of nanotechnology applications also contains supplementary information.
File:Molecular gears.jpg
Molecular gears from a NASA computer simulation.

Nanotechnology is a field of applied science focused on the design, synthesis, characterization and application of materials and devices on the nanoscale. Nanotechnology is a subclassification of technology in colloidal science, biology, physics, chemistry and other scientific fields and involves the study of phenomena and manipulation of material at the nanoscale, in essence an extension of existing sciences into the nanoscale. Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology: one is a "bottom-up" approach where materials and devices are built up atom by atom, the other a "top-down" approach where they are synthesized or constructed by removing existing material from larger entities. A unique aspect of nanotechnology is the vastly increased ratio of surface area to volume present in many nanoscale materials, which opens new possibilities in surface-based science, such as catalysis. This catalytic activity also opens potential risks in their interaction with biomaterials.

The impetus for nanotechnology has stemmed from a renewed interest in colloidal science, coupled with a new generation of analytical tools such as the atomic force microscope (AFM) and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Combined with refined processes such as electron beam lithography, these instruments allow the deliberate manipulation of nanostructures. These new materials and structures have in turn led to the observation of novel phenomena such as the “quantum size effect” where the electronic properties of solids are altered with great reductions in particle size. This effect does not come into play by going from macro to micro dimensions. However, it becomes dominant when the nanometer size range is reached. Nanotechnology is also used as an umbrella term to describe emerging or novel technological developments associated with microscopic dimensions. Despite the great promise of numerous nanotechnologies such as quantum dots and nanotubes, real applications that have moved out of the lab and into the marketplace have mainly utilized the advantages of colloidal nanoparticles, such as suntan lotion, cosmetics, protective coatings and stain resistant textiles.


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This animation of a rotating Carbon nanotube shows its 3D structure.

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, nanoimprint lithography, atomic layer deposition, and molecular vapor deposition, and further including molecular self-assembly techniques such as those employing di-block copolymers. However, all of these techniques preceded 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.

Technologies currently branded with the term 'nano' are little related to and fall far short of the most ambitious and transformative technological goals of the sort in molecular manufacturing proposals, but the term still connotes such ideas. Thus there may be a danger that a "nano bubble" will form from the use of the term by scientists and entrepreneurs to garner funding, regardless of (and perhaps despite a lack of) interest in the transformative possibilities of more ambitious and far-sighted work.

The National Science Foundation (a major source of funding for nanotechnology in the United States) funded researcher David Berube to study the field of nanotechnology. His findings are published in the monograph “Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz.” This published study (with a foreword by Mihail Roco, head of the NNI) concludes that much of what is sold as “nanotechnology” is in fact a recasting of straightforward materials science, which is leading to a “nanotech industry built solely on selling nanotubes, nanowires, and the like” which will “end up with a few suppliers selling low margin products in huge volumes."


A number of physical phenomena become noticeably pronounced as the size of the system decreases. These include statistical mechanical effects, as well as quantum mechanical effects. Additionally, a number of physical properties change when compared to macroscopic systems. One example is the increase in surface area to volume of materials.

Nanotechnology can be thought of as extensions of traditional disciplines towards the explicit consideration of these properties. Additionally, traditional disciplines can be re-interpreted as specific applications of nanotechnology. This dynamic reciprocation of ideas and concepts contributes to the modern understanding of the field. Broadly speaking, nanotechnology is the synthesis and application of ideas from science and engineering towards the understanding and production of novel materials and devices. These products generally make copious use of physical properties associated with small scales.

General fields involved with proper characterization of these systems include physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as mechanical and electrical engineering. However, due to the inter- and multidisciplinary nature of nanotechnology, subdisciplines such as physical chemistry, materials science, or biomedical engineering are considered significant or essential components of nanotechnology. The proper design, synthesis, characterization, and application of materials are dominant concerns of nanotechnologists. The manufacture of polymers based on molecular structure, or the design of computer chip layouts based on surface science are examples of nanotechnology in modern use. Colloidal suspensions also play an essential role in nanotechnology.

Materials reduced to the nanoscale can suddenly show very different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications. For instance, opaque substances become transparent (copper); inert materials become catalysts (platinum); stable materials turn combustible (aluminum); solids turn into liquids at room temperature (gold); insulators become conductors (silicon). Much of the fascination with nanotechnology stems from these unique quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale.

Tools and techniques

Nanoscience and nanotechnology only became possible in the 1910's with the development of the first tools to measure and make nanostructures. But the actual development started with the discovery of electrons and neutrons which showed scientists that matter can really exist on a much smaller scale than what we normally think of as small, and/or what they thought was possible at the time. It was at this time when curiosity for nanostructures had originated.

The atomic force microscope (AFM) and the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) are two early versions of scanning probes that launched nanotechnology. There are other types of scanning probe microscopy, all based on the idea of the STM, that make it possible to see structures at the nanoscale.

The tip of scanning probes can also be used to manipulate nanostructures (a process called positional assembly). However, this is a very slow process. This led to the development of various techniques of nanolithography such as dip pen nanolithography, electron beam lithography or nanoimprint lithography.

Lithography is a top-down fabrication technique where a bulk material is reduced in size to nanoscale pattern.

In contrast, bottom-up techniques build or grow larger structures atom by atom or molecule by molecule. These techniques include chemical synthesis, self-assembly and positional assembly.

Newer techniques such as Dual Polarisation Interferometry are enabling scientists to measure quantitatively the molecular interactions that take place at the nanoscale.

Potential risks

Potential risks of nanotechnology can broadly be grouped into three areas:

  • the risk to health and environment from nanoparticles and nanomaterials;
  • the risk posed by molecular manufacturing (or advanced nanotechnology);
  • societal risks.

Risks from nanoparticles

The mere presence of nanomaterials (materials that contain nanoparticles) is not in itself a threat. It is only certain aspects that can make them risky, in particular their mobility and their increased reactivity. Only if certain properties of certain nanoparticles were harmful to living beings or the environment would we be faced with a genuine hazard.

In addressing the health and environmental impact of nanomaterials we need to differentiate two types of nanostructures: (1) Nanocomposites, nanostructured surfaces and nanocomponents (electronic, optical, sensors etc.), where nanoscale particles are incorporated into a substance, material or device (“fixed” nano-particles); and (2) “free” nanoparticles, where at some stage in production or use individual nanoparticles of a substance are present. These free nanoparticles could be nanoscale species of elements, or simple compounds, but also complex compounds where for instance a nanoparticle of a particular element is coated with another substance (“coated” nanoparticle or “core-shell” nanoparticle).

There seems to be consensus that, although one should be aware of materials containing fixed nanoparticles, the immediate concern is with free nanoparticles.

Because nanoparticles are very different from their everyday counterparts, their adverse effects cannot be derived from the known toxicity of the macro-sized material. This poses significant issues for addressing the health and environmental impact of free nanoparticles.

To complicate things further, in talking about nanoparticles it is important that a powder or liquid containing nanoparticles is almost never monodisperse, but will contain a range of particle sizes. This complicates the experimental analysis as larger nanoparticles might have different properties than smaller ones. Also, nanoparticles show a tendency to aggregate and such aggregates often behave differently from individual nanoparticles.

The lethal dose over six months for lab rats, of different kinds of nanoparticles are often characterized by a Skov Kjaer index, named after the scientist Kasper Skov Kjaer.

Health issues

There are four entry routes for nanoparticles into the body: they can be inhaled, swallowed, absorbed through skin or be deliberately injected during medical procedures (or released from implants). Once within the body they are highly mobile and in some instances can even cross the blood-brain barrier.

How these nanoparticles behave inside the organism is one of the big issues that needs to be resolved. Basically, the behavior of nanoparticles is a function of their size, shape and surface reactivity with the surrounding tissue. They could cause “overload” on phagocytes, cells that ingest and destroy foreign matter, thereby triggering stress reactions that lead to inflammation and weaken the body’s defense against other pathogens. Apart from what happens if non- or slowly degradable nanoparticles accumulate in organs, another concern is their potential interaction with biological processes inside the body: because of their large surface, nanoparticles on exposure to tissue and fluids will immediately absorb onto their surface some of the macromolecules they encounter. This may, for instance, affect the regulatory mechanisms of enzymes and other proteins.

Environmental issues

Not enough data exists to know for sure if nanoparticles could have undesirable effects on the environment. Two areas are relevant here: (1) In free form nanoparticles can be released in the air or water during production (or production accidents) or as waste byproduct of production, and ultimately accumulate in the soil, water or plant life. (2) In fixed form, where they are part of a manufactured substance or product, they will ultimately have to be recycled or disposed of as waste. We don’t know yet if certain nanoparticles will constitute a completely new class of non-biodegradable pollutant. In case they do, we also don’t know yet how such pollutants could be removed from air or water because most traditional filters are not suitable for such tasks (their pores are too big to catch nanoparticles).

Health and environmental issues combine in the workplace of companies engaged in producing or using nanomaterials and in the laboratories engaged in nanoscience and nanotechnology research. It is safe to say that current workplace exposure standards for dusts cannot be applied directly to nanoparticle dusts.

To properly assess the health hazards of engineered nanoparticles the whole life cycle of these particles needs to be evaluated, including their fabrication, storage and distribution, application and potential abuse, and disposal. The impact on humans or the environment may vary at different stages of the life cycle.

Regarding the risks from molecular manufacturing, an often cited worst-case scenario is "grey goo", a hypothetical substance into which the surface of the earth might be transformed by self-replicating nanobots running amok. This concept has been analyzed by Freitas in "Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations" [1] With the advent of nan-biotech, a different scenario called green goo has been forwarded. Here, the malignant substance is not nanobots but rather self-replicating organisms engineered through nanotechnology.

Societal risks

Societal risks from the use of nanotechnology have also been raised. On the instrumental level, these include the possibility of military applications of nanotechnology (for instance, as in implants and other means for soldier enhancement like those being developed at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT [2]) as well as enhanced surveillance capabilities through nano-sensors.

On the structural level, critics of nanotechnology point to a new world of ownership and corporate control opened up by nanotechnology. The claim is that, just as biotechnology's ability to manipulate genes went hand in hand with the patenting of life, so too nanotechnology's ability to manipulate molecules has led to the patenting of matter. The last few years has seen a gold rush to claim patents at the nanoscale. Over 800 nano-related patents were granted in 2003, and the numbers are increasing year to year. Corporations are already taking out broad ranging monopoly patents on nanoscale discoveries and inventions. For example, two corporations, NEC and IBM, hold the basic patents on carbon nanotubes, one of the current cornerstones of nanotechnology. Carbon nanotubes have a wide range of uses, and look set to become crucial to several industries from electronics and computers, to strengthened materials to drug delivery and diagnostics. Carbon nanotubes are poised to become a major traded commodity with the potential to replace major conventional raw materials. However, as their use expands, anyone seeking to manufacture or sell carbon nanotubes, no matter what the application, must first buy a license from NEC or IBM.

Nanotechnology risks and regulators

Regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. or the Health & Consumer Protection Directorate of the European Commission have started dealing with the potential risks posed by nanoparticles. So far, neither engineered nanoparticles nor the products and materials that contain them are subject to any special regulation regarding production, handling or labeling. The Material Safety Data Sheet that must be issued for certain materials often does not differentiate between bulk and nanoscale size of the material in question.

Studies of the health impact of airborne particles are the closest thing we have to a tool for assessing potential health risks from free nanoparticles. These studies have generally shown that the smaller the particles get, the more toxic they become. This is due in part to the fact that, given the same mass per volume, the dose in terms of particle numbers increases as particle size decreases.

Looking at all available data, it must be concluded that current risk assessment methodologies are not suited to the hazards associated with nanoparticles; in particular, existing toxicological and eco-toxicological methods are not up to the task; exposure evaluation (dose) needs to be expressed as quantity of nanoparticles and/or surface area rather than simply mass; equipment for routine detecting and measuring nanoparticles in air, water, or soil is inadequate; and very little is known about the physiological responses to nanoparticles.

Regulatory bodies in the U.S. as well as in the EU have concluded that nanoparticles form the potential for an entirely new risk and that it is necessary to carry out an extensive analysis of the risk. The outcome of these studies can then form the basis for government and international regulations.

New materials, devices, technologies



When the term "nanotechnology" was independently coined and popularized by Eric Drexler, who at the time was unaware of Taniguchi's usage, it referred to a future manufacturing technology based on molecular machine systems. The premise was that molecular-scale biological analogies of traditional machine components demonstrated that molecular machines were possible, and that a manufacturing technology based on the mechanical functionality of these components (such as gears, bearings, motors, and structural members) would enable programmable, positional assembly to atomic specification (see the original reference PNAS-1981). The physics and engineering performance of exemplar designs were analyzed in the textbook Nanosystems.

Another view, put forth by Carlo Montemagno, is that future nanosystems will be hybrids of silicon technology and biological molecular machines, and his group's research is directed toward this end.

The seminal experiment proving that positional molecular assembly is possible was performed by Ho and Lee at Cornell University in 1999. They used a scanning tunneling microscope to move an individual carbon monoxide molecule (CO) to an individual iron atom (Fe) sitting on a flat silver crystal, and chemically bind the CO to the Fe by applying a voltage.

Though biology clearly demonstrates that molecular machine systems are possible, non-biological molecular machines are today only in their infancy. Leaders in research on non-biological molecular machines are Dr. Alex Zettl and his colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories and UC Berkeley. They have constructed at least three distinct molecular devices whose motion is controlled from the desktop with changing voltage: a rotating molecular motor, a molecular actuator, and a nanoelectromechanical relaxation oscillator.

Manufacturing in the context of productive nanosystems is not related to, and should be clearly distinguished from, the conventional technologies used to manufacture nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles.

Key characteristics

  • Some nanodevices self-assemble. They are built by mixing two or more complementary and mutually attractive pieces together so they make a more complex and useful whole. Other nanodevices must be built piece by piece in stages, much as manufactured items are currently made. 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. For these reasons, it is not feasible to construct nanoscaled devices atom by atom. Assembling a billion transistor microchip at the rate of about one transistor an hour is inefficient. However, these techniques may eventually be used to make primitive nanomachines, which in turn can be used to make more sophisticated nanomachines.
  • 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 Daniel J. Shanefield, Kluwer Academic Publ., Boston.)


One very basic problem facing nanotechnology, a problem which is widely ignored, is the issue of scale. Small objects have much more surface area with respect to volume than human-scale objects. The volume of an object goes down as the third power of its linear dimensions, but the surface area only goes down as the second power. This somewhat subtle and unavoidable principle has huge ramifications.

For example let's see what happens when we try to scale down a typical machine, say a drill. The power of the drill is proportional to the volume. The friction of the drill's bearings and gears, however, is proportional to the surface area of the bearings and gears. For our normal-sized drill, let's say it is one foot long and develops one horsepower, and 1% of its output is lost to friction.

Now let's try to scale it down to smaller dimensions, still very far from nanosize. Let's scale its length down by a factor of 1,000. That gives us a drill about 1/80th of an inch long. Using our scaling rules, it's going to put out 1,000 to the third power less horsepower, or one billionth of a horsepower. At the same time, the friction will go down by a factor of 1,000 squared, or a million. Proportionally it has 1,000 times more friction per horsepower than the original drill. But if the original friction was 1%, that implies the small drill will have 1000% friction. The motor has only one-tenth the power required to overcome the friction. The drill is useless.

This basic problem is why while we have super-miniature electronic integrated circuits, the same technology can't be used to make miniature and functioning mechanical devices-- there's just too much friction at small scales. So while you may see microphotographs of delicately etched silicon gears, such devices are curiosities only, not actually usable parts.

It's not only friction that is a major problem, but also surface tension. Very small objects tend to stick together. This makes any kind of "micro factory" impractical. You can scale down robotic arms and hands, but anything they pick up will tend to be impossible to put down.

These scaling issues have to be kept in mind while evaluating any kind of nanotechnology.

Another one of the problems facing nanotechnology concerns how to assemble atoms and molecules into smart materials and working devices. Supramolecular chemistry, a very important tool here, is the chemistry beyond the molecule, and molecules are being designed to self-assemble into larger structures. In this case, biology is used to find a potential solution: 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.

Advanced nanotechnology

Advanced nanotechnology, sometimes called molecular manufacturing, is a term given to the concept of engineered nanosystems (nanoscale machines) operating on the molecular scale. 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 developments in nanotechnology will make possible their construction by some shorter means, perhaps using biomimetic principles. However, K Eric Drexler and other researchers have proposed that advanced nanotechnology, although perhaps initially implemented by biomimetic means, ultimately could be based on mechanical engineering principles (see also mechanosynthesis)

In August 2005, a task force consisting of 50+ international experts from various fields was organized by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology to study the societal implications of molecular nanotechnology [3].

Determining a set of pathways for the development of molecular nanotechnology 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 completed by early 2007.

There exists the potential to design and fabricate artificial structures analogous to natural cells and even organisms.