One of the most revolutionary and radical advancements in modern science is actually of an incredibly small physical size itself. Nanomaterials are tiny structures with the potential to exert a massive influence in the world of science. In more scientific terms, nanomaterials are substances which have structured elements with at one or more dimension in the range of 1-100 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). The miniscule size of a nanometer is rather hard to comprehend. For example, a strand of hair is around 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanomaterials are expected to be used in a variety of different applications, namely nanotechnology. Nanoscience and nanotechnology are technically two different things. Nanoscience is the study of the properties and manipulation of substances on the nanoscale; while nanotechnology is the design, characterization, production, and application of nanoparticles. 

What Is Nanotechnology?

The study of nanoscience is of such a high importance because so many substances behave differently on the nanoscale. Some elements, like copper, are actually transparent on the nanoscale. Gold is typically unreactive, but it changes and is extremely chemically active on the nano level. Another example of this phenomenon is carbon, which in other cases is relatively soft, is quite hard on the nanoscale, packed into tiny tubes called nanotubes. Essentially, the point is that substances often have vastly different properties on the nanoscale as opposed to a larger size. A nanoparticle’s surface area is large, which makes it an excellent catalyst to expedite chemical reactions. The infinitesimally small size of nanoparticles are seen and manipulated through the lens of a powerful electron microscope specialized to magnify nanoparticles via quantum and electronic effects. Microscopes of this type also feature a tiny probe, allowing the user to move nanoparticles around like building blocks. In 1989, a  research scientist at IBM named Don Eigler constructed the letters IBM out of molecules on the nanoscale. The series of groundbreaking achievements in the study of nanoscience eventually led to the application of the discipline: nanotechnology.

The Roots of Nanotechnology

The roots of nanotechnology can be traced back to 1959, when the physicist Richard Feynman delivered a lecture at a meeting of the American Physical Society titled “There’s Plenty of Room At The Bottom”; which was the first known reference to nanotechnology, although it wasn’t defined in those terms at that point. His speech discussed manipulating and controlling substances on an extremely small scale, and he asked why the entire Encyclopedia Britannica couldn’t be published on a single pinhead. Feynman then offered a $1,000 prize to the first individual to design an engine in a 1/64th of an inch cube. Just one year later, a man named Bill McLellan took home the trophy after a successfully built motor that weighed a mere 250 micrograms. It consisted of thirteen different parts and could operate at 2,000 rotations per minute.

Evolving Applications

The world of nanotechnology has evolved greatly since McLellan’s accomplishment fifty six years ago. Today, the potential applications for nanotechnology are limitless. Polymer composites containing nanoparticle additives have been used to manufacture baseball bats, tennis rackets, motorcycle helmets, auto bumpers, luggage, power tool housings, and many other products. The nanoparticles make the material lightweight; while also being extremely stiff, durable, and resilient. Nanoparticles contained in fabrics or in fabric surface aid the fabric in resisting stains, wrinkles, and the growth of bacteria. They are also used in ballistic body armor to make it more lightweight and deflective of energy. Nanoparticle coatings can be applied to eyeglasses, windows, electronic displays, and other similar surfaces to provide greater clarity and an extra level of resistance to the elements. Computer systems will also benefit from the application of nanotechnology. At the current rate of growth and progress, the memory chip for a computer will be stored using nanoscale transistor.

Sustainable Energy Sources

One of the leading technological efforts of the present and future is the development of clean, sustainable sources of energy. Solar-powered electricity can be significantly improved by the application of nanotechnology, becoming much more efficient than some earlier designs. Panels with nanostructured cells are both less expensive as well as easier to install than many other types. Nanotechnological solar panels can be manufactured by a process very similar to printing, and they’re also flexible enough to be rolled for storage. There is a very common expectation that solar converters will be able to be painted onto a surface in the not too-distant future. Nanotechnology can be applied to boost the efficiency of petroleum, convert ethanol from plant-based cellulose, improve the design of batteries in both efficiency and safety, and a multitude of other things in the realms of technology.

Health and Medicine

The science of health and medicine are also going to be drastically enhanced using nanotechnology, particularly in diagnostic imaging. When nanoparticles are exposed to UV light, they emit a massive spectrum of colors; which offer much more clarity and precision than traditional diagnostic body scans. For example, diagnostic scanners utilizing nanotechnology are extremely adept at picking up on the accumulation of plaque in the arteries. Gold nanoparticles are also aiding in the diagnosis of the early stages Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases. Cancer is often easier to diagnose and monitor using biosensors made out of nanoparticles, as they are much more capable of detecting symptoms of cell malignancy. Studies have shown that nanostructured gels can accelerate the growth of nerve cells- i.e. the spinal cord, brain cells, optic nerves, etc.- by filling the space between the gaps.

Innovation and Rapid Growth

All of this is to say that both nanoscience and nanotechnology are bound to continue to grow rapidly, allowing for an astounding number of different innovations in an extraordinary way. Achievements that were once considered impossible are no longer out of reach due to the monumental leaps and bounds made possible by nanotechnology. While the nanoparticles themselves can only be seen through the magnification of an electronic microscope, they promise to exercise a disproportionately monumental level of influence on many facets of life and civilization.