According to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative’s website, nano.gov, “Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.” This begs a question, What is a nanometer? In simple terms, a nanometer is approximately 1/100,000 of the diameter of a human hair. A nanometer is so small that it is impossible to see it with the naked eye or even with an optical microscope. In fact, the hydrogen atom is ten times larger than a nanometer. Given these dimensions, you may wonder, How is it possible for scientists to work at the nano-level? The simple answer is that until 1980s, it was not possible. This begs the question, What changed in 1980s?
Three critical events came together in 1981 through 1989. The were:
- The invention of the “scanning tunneling microscope” (STM) in 1981 by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory. The STM enabled scientists to actually see atoms for the first time in history. Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer received a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 for their invention.
- K. Eric Drexler published his 1986 landmark book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, in which he suggested the control of atoms to build nanoscale machines.
- Don Eigler, an IBM physicist, used the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) tip in 1989 to manipulate individual atoms to write the letters IBM. This was the first time atoms were manipulated at the atomic level.
Taken as a whole, the above events gave rise to the fields of nanotechnology. Notice, I used the plural, “fields.” This is intentional. For example, numerous diverse scientific fields engage in nanotechnology research and application, including the fields of surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, and microfabrication. The common element they share is that the final application has at least one element with a dimension in the nanoscale, 1-100 nanometers. From this standpoint, it is best to consider nanotechnology as a category of technologies, characterized by having at least one dimension in the nanoscale.
You may think that nanotechnology is a relatively new capability. That statement would be true for humanity. However, Mother Nature has been working at the nanoscale for billions of years. Almost all natural process start at the nanoscale. For example, consider an abalone shell. Mother nature builds it layer-by-layer at the nanoscale. Although the shell is 98% calcium carbonate, its nano structure makes it 3000 times stronger than rocks with the same chemical composition. This is just one example. The are countless others. Even human beings rely on nano processes taking place within our bodies. Our DNA (i.e., deoxyribonucleic acid), which is found in every cell of our bodies, is only 2 nanometers in diameter. Even though it is extremely small, it carries all the genetic instructions for the development, function, and reproduction of our human bodies.
The goal of this post is to address the question, What is nanotechnology? The answer is actually simple. Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. It is not a single technology, but a category of technologies that result in applications with at least one dimension in the nanoscale (1-100 nanometers). I provided the short history and examples to afford those that read this post greater insight. What are your thoughts?