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What is Nanotechnology? History, Examples, and Applications

Updated on February 11, 2017

Nanotechnology is the science that deals with the study and application of things at an extremely small scale called the nanoscale.

What makes nanotechnology interesting is the fact that properties of a material change with the change in size at a nanoscale. The changes take place at the atomic and molecular level of a material.

Though the concepts of nanotechnology were introduced by Richard Feynman in 1959, materials at a nanoscale were used centuries ago.

Comparison of things on a nanoscale
Comparison of things on a nanoscale | Source

What is the nanoscale?

In the International System of Units, nano means one-billionth of a meter, and it is represented by the standard symbol nm.

A cm is 1/100th of a meter

A millimeter is 1/1000th of a meter

A micrometer is 1/1,000,000th of a meter (one millionth of a meter)

A nanometer is 1/ 1,000,000,000th of a meter one-billionth of a meter.

Here are examples of how small a nanometer can be –

  • one inch is about 25.4 million nanometers
  • a single water molecule is about 1.5 nanometers
  • a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
  • a human hair measures about 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter
  • a strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter

A nanometer is used to measure tiny things. For example, the tiniest part of any material is the atom. This atom is measured in nanometers.

History of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has been around since the fourth century. The craftsmen who used such techniques did not know about the concept of nanotechnology in scientific terms.

But what they did to create artefacts was similar to the nanotechnology that we are aware of today.

Lycurgus Cup appears to be red in color when lit from the outside
Lycurgus Cup appears to be red in color when lit from the outside | Source
Stained Glass used in the South Rose Window of Notre Dame Cathedral
Stained Glass used in the South Rose Window of Notre Dame Cathedral | Source

Examples of Nanotechnology in Ancient Times

Lycurgus Cup

The Lycurgus Cup made in the 4th century in Rome appeared to be of two different colors depending upon the angle of the light rays.

The Lycurgus Cup seemed to be green when lit from the outside and red when lit from the inside.

The glassmakers in those days achieved this effect by using nanoparticles of gold and silver that were dispersed in colloidal form.

Another example of Nanotechnology in ancient times is the vibrant stained glass windows used in the cathedrals of Europe.

The stained glasses used in the construction of the cathedrals had rich, vibrant colors that were achieved by using nanoparticles of gold, metal oxides and other chlorides.

The south rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral is an example of such an effect.



IBM logo created using nanotechnology
IBM logo created using nanotechnology | Source

Early Stages of Nanotechnology

In the year 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM’s Zurich Lab invented the Scanning Tunneling Microscope.

Using the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope scientists were able to work at the atomic level of any material. Scientists were able to manipulate the atoms of material and come up with new materials that had better properties when compared to the original material.

In the year 1986, Gerd Binnig Calvin Quate and Christopher Gerber invented the atomic force microscope. Scientists were able to view, measure and rearrange atoms to fractions of nanometers using the atomic force microscope.

In the year 1989, Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer at the IBM’s Almaden Research Center worked with 35 individual Xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. The creation of the IBM logo proved that atoms could be manipulated with precision.

Notice the change in color as the size changes
Notice the change in color as the size changes | Source

Change in Color of Gold with the Change in Size

The advance in the field of microscopy has lead to the invention of powerful microscopes that helped scientists to manipulate materials at a nanoscale.

The original properties of a material change as the size of the particles become smaller and smaller. Properties such as melting point, fluorescence, electrical conductivity, magnetic permeability and chemical reactivity of a material change with the change in size at the nanoscale.

For example, gold has a yellow color but at the nanoscale gold particles can appear in different colors.

The change in color is because the gold particles at a nanoscale react with light in a different manner when compared to gold particles on a larger scale.

Nanoparticles of gold can be manipulated to accumulate selectively in tumor cells. This selective accumulation can help in imaging the tumor and targeting the tumor cells without destroying the healthy cells.

Notice the increase in surface area
Notice the increase in surface area | Source

Why do properties of a material change with the change in size?

The change in properties of the nanoparticles is also because of the increase in the surface area as the particle size decreases.

As a particle reduces in size, more atoms are exposed and come to the surface thereby increasing the surface area.

For example, one gram of nanoparticles would have thousands of times greater surface area when compared to one gram of a bulk material.

The increase in the surface area at a nanoscale offers room for many improvements on the original material.

Applications of Nanotechnology

Field of Medicine

Nanotechnology in the field of medicine helps to target diseased cells and administer medicine directly to these cells without destroying healthy cells.

Nanoparticles are being engineered to deliver medicines directly to cancer cells. Companies such as CytImmune and Bind Biosciences have conducted clinical trials of such medicines.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that gelatin nanoparticles can be used to deliver medicines directly to the damaged brain tissue.

Researchers at MIT are working to come up with nanoparticles to deliver vaccines. Another research aims at developing nanoparticles to prevent the reproduction of viruses in a patient’s blood.

Research is still going on to develop effective methods to control and treat diseases in the field of medicine.

Field of Electronics

Hard drives used for storing data in computers need more power than a solid-state memory device (also known as the flash drive) and has higher chances of a breakdown. The solid state computer memory device occupies less space and uses less power and are ideal to fit in small computers.

Nanolithography technique has lead to the manufacture of memory chips with sizes as small as 20 nm. Magnetic nanowires made of iron and nickel alloy are being used to create memory devices with greater capacities.

Researchers at North Carolina State University are growing nanodots which are about 6 nm in diameter. A memory device storage capacity can increase phenomenally by using billions of the 6 nm diameter dots.

Carbon nanotubes are being used to make lightweight, millimeter thick nano emissive display panels.

These are some of the examples of nanotechnology in the field of electronics.

More Applications of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is being researched to come up with better materials and apply them across fields to improve existing products and come up with new products.

A few examples of ongoing research in nanotechnology -

  1. The increased surface area of nanoparticles is used to filter water in remote villages where clean drinking water is difficult to access.
  2. Production of eco-friendly fuel from raw materials to overcome fuel shortages.
  3. Improve the present catalysts that transform poisonous vapors escaping from industries and automobiles into the harmless breathable air.
  4. To make fabrics that are water, stain and odor resistant, to make shoe inserts that provide warmth for cold weather.
  5. Nanotechnology is also being researched in the food industry on how to grow better crops with greater health benefits, improve food safety and the packaging of goods.

To Summarize

Nanotechnology deals with things at a nanoscale. As the size of a particle decreases the properties of the particle changes exponentially.

By manipulating particles at a nanoscale, scientists can come up with ideas to improve the properties of existing products and synthesize new products with better features that can be used across many fields of application.

References

http://www.nano.gov/nanotech-101/what/definition

http://sciencelearn.org.nz/Contexts/Nanoscience/Science-Ideas-and-Concepts/Nanometres-and-nanoscale

http://education.mrsec.wisc.edu/36.htm

http://www.seas.virginia.edu/admin/diversity/k12/files/NNIN-What-Is-Nanotechnology.pdf

http://www.explainthatstuff.com/nanotechnologyforkids.html

http://www.nano.gov/nanotech-101/special

https://ninithi.com/nanoscale-why-size-matter/


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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 6 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Vellur, nanotechnology is incredible and this article really explained the intricacies and details. I understood very little about it, but this helps.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 6 months ago from Dubai

      Jodah nanotechnology is amazing and it opens up new possibilities to improve and innovate materials and products.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 6 months ago from New Delhi, India

      We keep on hearing about Nanotechnology but your well explained article helped me to understand more regarding this.

      You have really done a fine job in this well researched hub. Very informative hub with helpful illustrations .

      Thanks for the education!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 6 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I am a total nerd when it comes to technology, but this is very interesting, especially the gelatin nanoparticles in medicine. I feel that we are getting close to solving the cancer tumor cells. I also loved the stained glass windows. Before I downsized to a smaller house sixteen months ago, I had a front door that was stained glass, and I loved it. This is an amazing article, and I understand a little bit more. Thank you for writing this. BTW I have a grandson, Chad who is a technology nut ( that's all he's interested in ) He will love this.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 6 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      A brilliant explanation of nanotechnology. I simply knew that nanotechnology deals with minute particles. But your article explained me a lot and am much pleased to learn about this. Thanks for it.

      Sharing it on G+.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 6 months ago from England

      Awesome stuff Vellur! I love anything like this, and nanotechnology totally fascinates me! great read!

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 6 months ago from Dubai

      ChtirangadaSharan thank you for your appreciation and am happy you got to know more about nanotechnology.

      always exploring thank you. We are slowly but surely killing cancer cells. The front door must be looking beautiful with the stained glass.

      Venkatachari M thank you for your visit and share. Am glad to know that you came to know more about nanotechnology.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 6 months ago from Dubai

      Nell Rose nanotechnology is totally awesome and am glad you enjoyed the read.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 6 months ago from Olympia, WA

      This stuff is so far beyond me as to be funny. I can't even wrap my brain around it, it's so foreign to my simple mind. :) Thanks for the mini-lesson.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      This is a fascinating topic and the examples of applications are promising. Excellent technology hub!

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      billybuc thank you for your visit and read.

      FlourishAnyway thank you for your visit, nanotechnology is really amazing.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting article, Vellur. I enjoyed reading it a great deal. Nanotechnology is fascinating!

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      AliciaC thank you and am glad you enjoyed reading about nanotechnology.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      I especially enjoyed reading about nanotechnology in ancient times. Our ancestors may not have heard of the term, but they certainly knew a thing or two, didn't they? So interesting.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      BlossomSB, our ancestors, knew a lot of things before us. Now we are rediscovering what they knew. Glad you enjoyed reading.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 months ago

      This is such a fascinating topic. I love your chart on the size change examples. Thank you for the interesting read.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      teaches12345 thank you for your visit and comment. Nanotechnology is interesting, and it is exciting even to think what all nanotechnology can lead to.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 5 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Sounds an awesome idea! You have produced an amazing hub.

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 5 months ago from Dubai

      DDE thank you.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 months ago from California

      What a great article! Thank you!

    • Vellur profile image
      Author

      Nithya Venkat 3 months ago from Dubai

      AudreyHowitt thank you.

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