What exactly is nanotechnology?
Well, it helps to first start with a definition of the prefix nano. In science, there is a preferred system of units known as the Système International d'Unités (French for International System of Units), or SI for short. It is almost exclusively used in science, and even in all aspects of modern culture everywhere, with the glaring exception of the United States of America (go figure!). The US still uses the arcane system of units originally used in England, which includes the common units of the foot for length and the pound for weight or force (interestingly enough, even England has converted over to SI units!). One the the most convenient things about SI units is their systematic prefixes which make representing and working with large and small numbers extremely convenient. Here is a list of the most common (and, maybe some less common) SI prefixes and their meanings:
Do you see anything familiar in the above chart (towards the very bottom)? Nano is just not any prefix...it is in fact an SI prefix! SI prefixes are useful to use in place of scientific notation when dealing with units of the same order of magnitude. For instance, we all are familiar with the terms "megabyte" and "gigabyte" when referring to data capacities of computer hard drives, flash drives (also known as USB thumb drives), memory cards (commonly used in cameras and PDAs), and iPods and other digital media players. You may not know, however, that a megabyte (MB) is 1 million bytes, while a gigabyte is 1 billion bytes. The prefixes mega and giga should also look familar to you after reviewing the above chart...these, too, are SI prefixes! However, these common prefixes are used for very large numbers, which makes sense, since we are always in need of more and more data storage these days. Nano, on the other hand, is a useful, yet not-as-common, prefix used for very small numbers.
Although nano may not be quite as common as mega and giga, it has been seeping into our modern culture bit by bit...just look at one of Apple's hottest iPod models in the recent past, the iPod Nano! Of course, if you didn't know before, you can now easily understand why Apple chose this somewhat peculiar label for their product. They are doing their best to be trendy (and, it did seem to work!) by making a smaller version of their iPod with a catchy name that literally means sub-microscopic. And, as with so many things in pop culture, the name is quite a misnomer, but it seemed to be an effective marketing scheme none-the-less. Micro is very small (think microscope), but somehow the name iPod Micro wasn't cool enough for Apple. I guess micro was a bit played-out by that point in time!
So, to recap...the prefix nano literally means "10-9" or "1 billionth", which is useful in representing and dealing with numbers that are incredibly small (even smaller than things that can be described as micro, which literally means "10-6" or "1 millionth"). Thus, you can correctly conclude that nanotechnology refers to extremely small technology.
Why should we care about things that are on the nanoscale?
After all, we can't see things this small with our naked eyes. But, I'm sure you're familiar with chemistry, biology, and medicine, whether or not you did well in school when learning about these subjects! You most certainly are aware of these disciplines in life, which all involve things that are just too small for us to see with an unaided eye. You understand the "big picture" about microscopes, which, as the prefix micro implies, lets you see things that are very small, some things which are even impossible to see without the device. So, clearly, if things on the microscale require a special device to be seen, although these things, as we all know, are incredibly crucial to life as we know it (bacteria, viruses, cells within our bodies, and chemical in drugs, just to name a few), things on an even smaller scale must be just as important, if not even more important.
Figure 2: In this image, with a scale of only a square-nanometer [1 nm x 1 nm], atoms themselves can be "seen".
What can nanotechnology do for us?
Many people, when asked if they know what nanotechnology is, come back with an answer that deals with tiny, sub-microscopic robots that will one day be injected into our bodies to unclog our restricted arteries, break up our kidney stones, or stitch up small rips in our intestinal tract. Oh, that's not what you or your friends would say? Well, either way, I do believe many people have many misconceptions about this quickly advancing discipline. However, it is still nice to imagine such a future, in which, as some believe, we will literally be able to build anything and everything from the absolute ground up, atom by atom. Just watch the following video to see what some hopefuls believe the future will be like (I must admit, I'd like this to be possible some day, myself!):
As Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines it, nanotechnology is "the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices (as robots)." Thus, the above video seems to fit the bill quite nicely! However, we have quite a way to go to get to this level of manufacturing! Although this may be the ultimate goal of nanotechnology, currently, a somewhat more appropriate way to describe the science is as follows:
Q: What is a 9-letter word for nanotechnology?
This somewhat undercuts the true value of this "art" but, at least as it is right now, nanotechnology isn't a whole lot different from certain aspects of chemistry. A more refined way to put it is that nanotechnology is the discipline which uses the laws of chemistry to do more than just understand chemical reactions and the like, but to actually use these laws to do some engineering. Naturally, this leads to the notion that a nanotechnologist is nothing more than a chemical engineer. That may actually be accurate...after all, many disciplines in science [and in life in general] overlap in so many ways that the defining lines between them often become indistinguishably blurred!
What is one practicle use of nanotechnology, you ask? Take a look at the following image, and you'll instantly know:
Figure 4: The elusive "nano-toilet" finally imaged in its natural habitat...gotcha!
According to the website on which this image can be found, "Taken with an electron microscope by nanotechnologist Kaito Takahashi, this pic not only shows the intricacies of objects that can be constructed at the nanoscale, but it also demonstrates the astonishing smallness of the world you see at 15,000X magnification." Well, that answers the age-old question of "What do nano-bots do when nature calls?"
NOTICE: the above discussion of the nano-toilet was just a little science humor...if you weren't already aware!
Seriously, now...did you know that nanotechnology is already a part of your life? Don't believe me? Do you own a pair of "stain-resistant" pants? If not, you've surely at least heard about this technology, and you most certainly know someone who owns a pair, whether you know it or not (try spilling some grape juice on the pants of all your friends the next time you're hanging out...you're sure to be the hit of the party if you do!). Chances are, these pants contain nanotechnology (check out http://www.nano-tex.com/). The general idea behind "nano pants" (and "nano cloth" in general) is that by using special nano-sized particles and interweaving them into the fabric in a certain fashion (which requires more than a "coating" of the material), certain special properties can be attained.
Nanotechology in consumer products can do more than just help in our never-ending battle against dirty clothing, however! For example, there are even nano-teddy-bears on the market which, instead of repelling stains, repel bacteria: the bear incorporates nanotechnology which gives it an antimicrobial advantage (the fur of the stuffed animal actually inhibits bacterial growth!). The outer layer of the toy is coated with silver nanoparticles which enable it accomplish this amazing feat. The same technology is used in certain brands of socks, which, as you might have guessed, use the antibacterial property of the silver nanoparticles to reduce odor, which is mainly caused by bacteria living and multiplying within our footwear (yuck!). Yet one more place you'll find nanotechnology in our society is in certain new sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles: these lotions still provide the health benefit of protecting us from the Sun's harmful radiation while having the added cosmetic benefit of not making our skin all white-looking as we rub it on (as the girl from the Orbit gum commercials would say, "Fabulous!"). Oh, the price we pay for beauty! (Did I mention lots of cosmetic products out there also contain nanotechnology? Maybe it's Maybelline...or, is it just the nanoparticles?)
Find out more about what nano-products are currently on the market by visiting the following website [click the image below]:
What else can nanotechnology do for us? One thing is that it may allow us to effectively scale-down certain existing technologies (solar cells, for instance) which, theoretically, can make them more efficient (especially from an energy standpoint). Find out more on the "my research" page of my website.