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A walk along the small side - NANOSCIENCE

Updated on September 29, 2008

Nanotechnology is a group of emerging technologies in which the structure of matter is controlled at the nanometer scale, the scale of small numbers of atoms, to produce novel materials and devices that have useful and unique properties.

What are the Nanoscale Dimensions?

Nano- is a prefix (symbol n) in the SI system of units denoting a factor of 10−9. It is often used in prefixing time and length units encountered in electronics and computer systems, like 30 nanoseconds (symbol ns) and 100 nanometres (nm). ...

A “nanometre” (nm) equals one billionth of a metre. One human hair is about 80,000 nanometres thick. It takes ten atoms of hydrogen side-by-side to equal one nanometre. A DNA molecule is about 2.5 nm wide. A red blood cell is vast in comparison: about 5,000 nm in diameter. Everything on the nanoscale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes.

Why Understanding the ‘Quantum Effects’ of Materials at Nanoscale Level is the Key to Understanding Nanotechnology

Key to understanding the unique power and potential of nanotech is that, at the nanoscale (below about 100 nanometres), a material’s properties can change dramatically - these unexpected changes are called “quantum effects.” With only a reduction in size and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties such as electrical conductivity, elasticity, greater strength, different colour and greater reactivity - characteristics that the very same substances do not exhibit at the micro or macro scales.

Examples of Materials Showing Different Properties at the Nanoscale Level

Carbon in the form of graphite (like pencil lead) is soft and malleable; at the nanoscale carbon can be stronger than steel and is six times lighter.

Zinc oxide is usually white and opaque; at the nanoscale it becomes transparent.

Aluminum - the material of soft drink cans - can spontaneously combust at the nanoscale and could be used in rocket fuel.

Creating Novel Materials and Refining Existing Materials Using Nanotechnology Methods

Scientists are exploiting property changes at the nanoscale to create new materials and modify existing ones. Companies are now manufacturing nanoparticles (i.e. chemical elements or compounds less than 100 nm in size) that are used in hundreds of commercial products. Nanotech’s “raw materials” are the chemical elements of the Periodic Table - the building blocks of everything - both living and non-living.

Industry Applications for Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology Methods

Researchers are employing nanotech to make faster computers; cell-specific drugs; powerful new chemical catalysts (used in the processing of petroleum); sensors monitoring everything from crops to crooks to customers; stronger, lighter, smarter, more durable materials, etc. Nanoscale technologies are poised to become the strategic platform for global control of manufacturing, food, agriculture and health in the immediate years ahead.


Nanomedicine may be defined as the monitoring, repair, construction and control of human biological systems at the molecular level, using engineered nanodevices and nanostructures.

Basic nanostructured materials, engineered enzymes, and the many products of biotechnology will be enormously useful in near-term medical applications.

Once nanomachines are available, the ultimate dream of every healer, medicine man, and physician throughout recorded history will, at last, become a reality. Programmable and controllable microscale robots comprised of nanoscale parts fabricated to nanometer precision will allow medical doctors to execute curative and reconstructive procedures in the human body at the cellular and molecular levels. Nanomedical physicians of the early 21st century will still make good use of the body's natural healing powers and homeostatic mechanisms, because, all else equal, those interventions are best that intervene least. But the ability to direct events in a controlled fashion at the cellular level is the key that will unlock the indefinite extension of human health and the expansion of human abilities.

Applications of nanomedicine

• New types of drugs, either based on the human genome or structural genomics (e.g., information related to functionality to be translated into protein structures) or biomimetics (e.g., the use of synthetic molecule/copy of the functional elements of a protein);

• Targeted drug delivery (i.e., bioavailability);

• Nanoscale biostructures, which include artificial bones, tissue engineering and cell therapy;

• Nanobots – nanomaterials;

Various types of devices, for example, neuron–digital interfaces. These nanodevices should enable the interaction between computers and the nervous system.

Surgical aids

Another category of nanodevice that could change the practice of medicine is medical nanodevices that would enable greater precision, better monitoring of physiological and biomechanical parameters and safer and potentially less expensive (because they are less invasive) surgical procedures.

Diagnostic tools

Finally, nanotechnology offers new applications in the area of genetic testing. In particular, these innovative solutions can increase speed and accuracy in the process of identifying genes and genetic materials either for treatment-oriented applications or the development of new drugs.

What are nanobots?

A nanobot is defined as a nanotechnological robot nanomachine, also called a nanite, which is a mechanical or electromechanical device whose dimensions are measured in nanometers (millionths of a millimeter, or units of 10-9 meter.

Nanobots would get their energy by eating molecules from their environment and also be able to not only do things but also make more of themselves. Sort of like bacteria, they can replicate and get their energy by eating molecules or by basking in the sun.

Nanobots are mostly imagined to be little machines, tiny robots that scurry around and do things. Like what? Like cleaning out blocked arteries or swimming through the ocean eating polluting chemicals. But there are some serious problems in getting them to work. Life is different at the nanoscale. Not only do things not move very easily, but there is also a lot shaking going on. The notion of nanobots was at first a pretty scary thing. What would stop them from taking over the Earth by just making lots and lots of themselves. The closest things that are truly on the nanoscale are little ‘machines’ that are made out of stuff like DNA and move (link to DNA machines).

Of course, there are no nanobots yet, and won't be for a while, but one of the fundamental problems to be solved for possible future molecular machinery is the challenge of controlling many molecule-sized machines simultaneously to perform a desired task.

Respirocytes in the Bronchi
Respirocytes in the Bronchi


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    • profile image

      Emibirda23 5 years ago

      Could you go into a bit of detail about the Nano science making computers faster please, would like to learn more about it, cheers

    • tjp5036 profile image

      Tim 8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I recently took a course in college about nanotechnology. Very interesting field. I also wrote a book review that attempts to critically analyze the scientific information presented in Michael Crichton's novel Prey.

    • profile image

      henadzi 8 years ago

    • Roger Renwick profile image

      Roger Renwick 9 years ago from Florence, Alabama

      hi sushinisen, that was very good, i love nano tech, it is so amazing to me that something that can be produced by man is so small. i also heard that they are working with a new technology using the bucky ball to form a bulletproof vest.

    • Trsmd profile image

      Trsmd 9 years ago from India

      Wonderful and educative page.. Thanks for posting

    • John Chancellor profile image

      John Chancellor 9 years ago from Tennessee

      Very interesting and informative. I wonder what the ethical implications of this will be. Are we getting to where we will control more than we should? I can see the positive benefits but I can also see that in the wrong hands this could pose some real problems. I guess it is like many other things in life ... things are neither good or bad, but how we use them.