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Small Science: A Resource Guide to Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology, sometimes called “nanotech” combines science, engineering and technology in order to design and manipulate materials and functional systems at the atomic and molecular scale or ‘nanoscale,’ which is approximately 1 to 100 nanometers. One nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter, one thousandth of a micrometer or one-millionth of a millimeter. Comparatively speaking and according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), “if a marble were a nanometer, then one meter would be the size of the earth.” Every living thing and inanimate form or material, such as our bodies, food, clothes, buildings, machinery, etc. is composed of individual atoms and has physical, chemical and biological properties than differ from one another. Nanotechnology is engaged in the process of looking at and controlling these individual atoms and molecules in order to develop and construct items from their smallest forms into high performance and rapidly advanced products. Composite materials at small dimensions have significantly distinctive properties than they do at larger scales. Therefore, when broken down and assembled as small formations, the same static objects have infinite possibilities for highly improved materials, structures and devices. Scientists, therefore, create, explore and manipulate materials in nanometers in order to construct items using techniques and tools to develop whole, high-performance products.

Nanotechnology Origin and History

On December 29, 1959, physicist Richard Feynman gave a lecture at the California Institute of Technology, titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He described a scientific process that would enable researchers to physically manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Feynman was a Nobel Prize winner in physics and quoted as saying, “I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously. . . The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.” In 1974, Professor Norio Taniguchi labeled the innovative idea as “nanotechnology,” and described it as the "processing, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or one molecule." However, it wasn’t until 1981, that the development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM), as well as the atomic force microscope (AFM), enabled scientists to view individual atoms at the nanometer scale, and the evolution of nanotechnology began.

Research and Advances in Nanotechnology

According to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, there are four generations of nanotech development that includes passive nanostructures, which are ones designed to achieve only a single task; active nanostructures that are designed for multitasking, such as drug delivery insturments, sensors and actuators; nanosystems that have thousands of intermixing mechanisms; and integrated nanosystems that function somewhat like that of a mammal’s cell with systems that work within other systmes acording to a particular hierarchy. As indicated by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), these four generations are defined as “…the four generations of nanotechnology that lead up to molecular nanosystems, which will include molecular manufacturing.”

Common Uses of Nanotechnology

Scientists and engineers are manipulating materials at the nanoscale level in order to utilize their augmented properties, such as increased strength and control of light spectrums, lighter weight and superior chemical reactions than they are capable of as larger scales. Therefore, nanotechnology, sometimes called general purpose technology, enables scientists and engineers to create smarter, safer, cleaner, longer lasting, more efficient and better built products for the home, medicine, agriculture, transportation, communications, the military and industry. The intrinsic value of nanotechnology is that it offers enhanced products by using exceedingly improved manufacturing processes, leading to the belief that it is "the next industrial revolution." It will enable the clean and efficient manufacturing of a large amount of high-quality products at very low costs and rapid speeds. In addition, it will provide for the ability of these manufacturing systems to reproduce and build their own factories, referred to as ‘nanofactories’ and thus, reproduce exponentially. It is this key aspect of nanotechnology that many say makes it a “revolutionary, transformative, powerful and potentially very dangerous or beneficial technology.”  

Applications for and Implications of Nanotechnology

The types of uses and products manufactured using nanotechnology will have applications in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and materials science. Innovations in nanotechnology will have the potential of providing environmental benefits, such as improved energy efficiency, cleaner energy production, better water treatment and environmental remedies. By using nanotechnology to understand how the body functions at the cellular level, innovative and ground-breaking medical techniques could have significant implications, which would provide for earlier detection of diseases, quicker diagnosis and targeted drug delivery. In addition, it has revolutionary implications in medicine and health, whereas the creation of tiny, independent ‘nanorobots’ may be inserted into the human body to locate ill or diseased organs and mend them. Nanotechnology has applications for greatly enhanced surveillance tools and powerful weaponry for the military. Therefore, applications of nanotechnology have serious and far-reaching cultural, social, economic, environmental and military implications.

Risks and Dangers of Nanotechnology

Because nanotechnology is a general purpose technology and therefore, dual use, it will have commercial and military applications and implications. Nanotechnology brings with it pioneering developments for mankind, but critical risks, as well. It has the potential to create significant risks to human health and the environment, in addition to causing economic disruption and an unstable arms race. It is imperative that stable and effective policies and regulations are developed regarding the manufacture and use of nanotechnology-based products, and that issues are addressed and dangers are analyzed. The CRN has begun generating a list of potential dangers and risks associated with nanotechnology, which include ownership rights of nanotechnology, affects on the disparity between the rich and the poor, widely available or heavily restricted, personal or social risk from abusive restrictions, unstable arms race, personal risk from criminal or terrorist use, nanotech black markets, environmental damage or health risks from unregulated products, free-range self-replicators, competing nanotech programs, social disruption from new products and lifestyles, economic disruption from an abundance of cheap products and economic oppression from artificially inflated prices.

To learn more about nanotechnology, consult the following links.