Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to “nanotech“) is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale. The earliest, widespread description of nanotechnology referred to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, also now referred to as molecular nanotechnology. A more generalized description of nanotechnology was subsequently established by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers. This definition reflects the fact that quantum mechanical effects are important at this quantum-realm scale, and so the definition shifted from a particular technological goal to a research category inclusive of all types of research and technologies that deal with the special properties of matter that occur below the given size threshold. It is therefore common to see the plural form “nanotechnologies” as well as “nanoscale technologies” to refer to the broad range of research and applications whose common trait is size. Because of the variety of potential applications (including industrial and military), governments have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology research. Through its National Nanotechnology Initiative, the USA has invested 3.7 billion dollars. The European Union has invested 1.2 billion and Japan 750 million dollars.
Why go Small?
Technologies : scanning tunnelling microscope, peptide fibres, zinc oxide nanorods and magnesium sulphate crystals – technologies which could lead to advances in medicine. Nanomedicine may help alleviate the effects of and actually cure diseases such as cancer, diabetics, cardiovascular diseases, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and inflammatory and/or infectious diseases not only impact on individual patients and their family. The societal and economic impact is immense and requires constant review, examination and assessment on easing both the direct and indirect burden. Nanomedicine ranges from the medical applications of nanomaterials, to nanoelectronic biosensors, and even possible future applications of molecular nanotechnology. Current problems for nanomedicine involve understanding the issues related to toxicity and environmental impact of nanoscale materials.
Can Solar Energy Get Bigger by Thinking Small?
Dr Scott Watkins is currently leading CSIRO’s research stream on Organic Photovoltaics (OPVs). This includes scientists working across CSIRO at laboratories based in both Melbourne and Newcastle. In the area of OPVs, CSIRO is a key member of the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) which includes researchers from the University of Melbourne, Monash University, and industry partners Securency, BlueScope Steel, Innovia Films and Robert Bosch SEA. VICOSC draws together the resources of Australia’s leading research institutions and companies to develop technologies to enable the production of low-cost, printable, organic solar cells. The aim of the consortia is to replace high-cost silicon based solar cells with low-cost, environmentally friendly, printable, thin-film, plastic solar cells.
Nanotechnology is an emerging giant – it will have unprecedented impact on creating materials, devices and systems at the molecular level. By being able to work at the ultra-small scale, given a nano is one billionth of a metre, nanotechnology is being used to deliver high impact innovations in areas as diverse as health, construction, energy and space exploration.
In a recent H+ Article, Ben Goertzel wrote about Femtotechnology: Not long ago nanotechnology was a fringe topic; now it’s a flourishing engineering field, and fairly mainstream. For example, while writing this article, I happened to receive an email advertisement for the “Second World Conference on Nanomedicine and Drug Delivery,” in Kerala, India. It wasn’t so long ago that nanomedicine seemed merely a flicker in the eyes of Robert Freitas and a few other visionaries!
But nano is not as small as the world goes. A nanometer is 10−9 meters – the scale of atoms and molecules. A water molecule is a bit less than one nanometer long, and a germ is around a thousand nanometers across. On the other hand, a proton has a diameter of a couple femtometers – where a femtometer, at 10−15 meters, makes a nanometer seem positively gargantuan. Now that the viability of nanotech is widely accepted (in spite of some ongoing heated debates about the details), it’s time to ask: what about femtotech? Picotech or other technologies at the scales between nano and femto seem relatively uninteresting, because we don’t know any basic constituents of matter that exist at those scales. But femtotech, based on engineering structures from subatomic particles, makes perfect conceptual sense, though it’s certainly difficult given current technology.
The nanotech field was arguably launched by Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” As Feynman wrote there,
Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?Richard Feynman