Nanotechnology, shortened to "nanotech", is the study of the control of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally nanotechnology deals with structures of the size 100 nanometers or smaller, and involves developing materials or devices within that size. Nanotechnology is very diverse, ranging from extensions of conventional device physics, to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, to developing new materials with dimensions on the nano scale, even to speculation on whether we can directly control matter on the atomic scale.
Nanotechnology has the potential to create many new materials and devices with wide-ranging applications, such as in medicine, electronics, and energy production
Manufactured products are made from atoms. The properties of those products depend on how those atoms are arranged. If we rearrange the atoms in coal we can make diamond. If we rearrange the atoms in sand (and add a few other trace elements) we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes.
Today’s manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It's like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can't really snap them together the way you'd like.
In the future, nanotechnology will let us take off the boxing gloves. We'll be able to snap together the fundamental building blocks of nature easily, inexpensively and in most of the ways permitted by the laws of physics. This will be essential if we are to continue the revolution in computer hardware beyond about the next decade, and will also let us fabricate an entire new generation of products that are cleaner, stronger, lighter, and more precise.
It's worth pointing out that the word "nanotechnology" has become very popular and is used to describe many types of research where the characteristic dimensions are less than about 1,000 nanometers. For example, continued improvements in lithography have resulted in line widths that are less than one micron: this work is often called "nanotechnology." Sub-micron lithography is clearly very valuable (ask anyone who uses a computer!) but it is equally clear that conventional lithography will not let us build semiconductor devices in which individual dopant atoms are located at specific lattice sites.
Many of the exponentially improving trends in computer hardware capability have remained steady for the last 50 years. There is fairly widespread belief that these trends are likely to continue for at least another several years, but then conventional lithography starts to reach its limits.
If we are to continue these trends we will have to develop a new manufacturing technology which will let us inexpensively build computer systems with mole quantities of logic elements that are molecular in both size and precision and are interconnected in complex and highly idiosyncratic patterns. Nanotechnology will let us do this.
Over 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3–4 per week. The project lists all of the products in a publicly accessible online inventory.
Most applications are limited to the use of "first generation" passive nano materials which includes titanium dioxide in sunscreen, cosmetics and some food products; Carbon allotropes used to produce gecko tape; silver in food packaging, clothing, disinfectants and household appliances; zinc oxide in sunscreens and cosmetics, surface coatings, paints and outdoor furniture varnishes; and cerium oxide as a fuel catalyst.
Health and environmental concerns
Due to the far-ranging claims that have been made about potential applications of nanotechnology, a number of serious concerns have been raised about what effects these will have on our society if realized, and what action if any is appropriate to mitigate these risks.
There are possible dangers that arise with the development of nanotechnology. It suggests that new developments could result, among other things, in untraceable weapons of mass destruction, networked cameras for use by the government, and weapons developments fast enough to destabilize arms races ("Nanotechnology Basics").
Certain materials, such as carbon, acquire unusual and useful properties when fabricated into particles of 100 nanometers or smaller. Carbon nanotubes, for example, can be used to make extremely strong but flexible materials, and are turning up in bicycle frames and bullet-resistant T-shirts.
But these materials also behave differently when they are reduced to tiny particles, and there has been little research into their effects on living organisms, if inhaled or ingested, or their effect on the environment.
"Nanomaterials are not well understood," said Sam Lipson , director of environmental health at the Cambridge Public Health Department.
"There is an enormous area of uncertainty and unanswered questions."
Agencies of the federal government are just beginning to study the matter. They must also decide whether new regulations are needed, or whether nanoparticles are covered by existing safety regulations.
The Environmental Protection Agency last year said it would regulate nanosilver -- super-small silver particles used as a disinfecting agent in shoe liners and washing machine tubs. There's no explicit EPA regulation covering nanosilver particles, but the agency concluded that existing pesticide regulations could be applied to the material.
A technology consulting firm in Brookline, said there is some evidence that nanoparticles could pose health risks. He cited a study that found that rats developed scar tissue when liquid mixed with carbon nanoparticles was sprayed into their lungs. But as far more research is needed before jumping to conclusions about the safety of nanoparticles.
"We know that some nanomaterials, at some point during their life cycle, may pose risks" . "We really cannot quantify how high the risk is."
A Woburn company that designs nanotube-based microchips, said the Berkeley law is poorly drafted and unnecessary. "Nanoparticles are covered under the same regulations that larger particles are covered under," he said.
FUTURE OF NANO TECHNOLOGY
Today nanotechnology is still in a formative phase--not unlike the condition of computer science in the 1960s or biotechnology in the 1980s. Yet it is maturing rapidly. Between 1997 and 2005, investment in nanotech research and development by governments around the world soared from $432 million to about $4.1 billion, and corresponding industry investment exceeded that of governments by 2005. By 2015, products incorporating nanotech will contribute approximately $1 trillion to the global economy.
About two million workers will be employed in nanotech industries, and three times that many will have supporting jobs.
Descriptions of nanotech typically characterize it purely in terms of the minute size of the physical features with which it is concerned--assemblies between the size of an atom and about 100 molecular diameters. That depiction makes it sound as though nanotech is merely looking to use infinitely smaller parts than conventional engineering.
But at this scale, rearranging the atoms and molecules leads to new properties. One sees a transition between the fixed behavior of individual atoms and molecules and the adjustable behavior of collectives. Thus, nanotechnology might better be viewed as the application of quantum theory and other nano-specific phenomena to fundamentally control the properties and behavior of matter.
Over the next couple of decades, nanotech will evolve through four overlapping stages of industrial prototyping and early commercialization. The first one, which began after 2000, involves the development of passive nanostructures: materials with steady structures and functions, often used as parts of a product. These can be as modest as the particles of zinc oxide in sunscreens, but they can also be reinforcing fibers in new composites or carbon nanotube wires in ultraminiaturized electronics
The second stage, which began in 2005, focuses on active nanostructures that change their size, shape, conductivity or other properties during use. New drug-delivery particles could release therapeutic molecules in the body only after they reached their targeted diseased tissues. Electronic components such as transistors and amplifiers with adaptive functions could be reduced to single, complex molecules.
Starting around 2010, workers will cultivate expertise with systems of nanostructures, directing large numbers of intricate components to specified ends.
One application could involve the guided self-assembly of nanoelectronic components into three-dimensional circuits and whole devices. Medicine could employ such systems to improve the tissue compatibility of implants, or to create scaffolds for tissue regeneration, or perhaps even to build artificial organs.
After 2015-2020, the field will expand to include molecular nanosystems--heterogeneous networks in which molecules and supramolecular structures serve as distinct devices. The proteins inside cells work together this way, but whereas biological systems are water-based and markedly temperature-sensitive, these molecular nanosystems will be able to operate in a far wider range of environments and should be much faster.
Computers and robots could be reduced to extraordinarily small sizes. Medical applications might be as ambitious as new types of genetic therapies and antiaging treatments. New interfaces linking people directly to electronics could change telecommunications.
Over time, therefore, nanotechnology should benefit every industrial sector and health care field. It should also help the environment through more efficient use of resources and better methods of pollution control. Nanotech does, however, pose new challenges to risk governance as well. Internationally, more needs to be done to collect the scientific information needed to resolve the ambiguities and to install the proper regulatory oversight.
Helping the public to perceive nanotech soberly in a big picture that retains human values and quality of life will also be essential for this powerful new discipline to live up to its astonishing potential.