Scientist working on nanotechnology project

Introduction to nanotechnology

So what exactly is nanoscience? And why the excitement?

In a nutshell, nanoscience is the science of the extremely tiny. ‘Nano’ (from the Greek for ‘dwarf’) is the prefix for units of 10–9. One nanometre is a billionth of a metre, or a millionth of a millimetre.

The nano size range is usually defined as smaller than 100 nm. But why is nanoscience so special? The key point is that at nanoscales, materials have strikingly different properties. Nanoscience is concerned with understanding these effects, for a variety of different industries. Because the range of applications is so diverse, it’s helpful to think of nanotechnologies in the plural.

The potential of nanotechnologies is apparently endless: we’ve been promised everything from the mundane (better paints and self-cleaning windows) to the bizarre (tiny submarines that will glide through our veins destroying bacteria). As a result, nanoscience and nanotechnologies are attracting considerable investment from governments and industry hoping to drive economic development.

Ironically, the most complex and highly functional nanoscale materials and machines have already been invented – by nature. Proteins and other naturally occurring molecules regulate and control biological systems with incredible precision. Ultrastrong or other clever materials are commonplace, from mussel glue and spider’s silk to water-repelling lotus leaves.

Many nanotechnologists are drawing inspiration from biology to create new synthetic materials and devices.

So why the worry? Some people suggest that the unusual properties that make the nano-world exciting also require us to proceed with caution. Because they act so differently, nanomaterials cannot be thought of as the same substance as their macro-forms. Their properties, and their effects on people or the environment, may be quite different.

Lead image:

Sandia Labs/Flickr CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development