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Publication Date: 2212
Report Type: TUTORIAL
Nanotechnology allows objects to be built with molecular precision by
machines called assemblers, which themselves are only a few atoms in size.
In a nanotech world of the future, assemblers will routinely manufacture
inanimate objects in much the same way that plants and animals are built
by the molecular machines we know as proteins. The ability to build at
this scale and with this sort of exactitude endows human beings with
nearly absolute control over the nature of matter. It is, in short, the
stuff of science fiction made fact.
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Considered strictly as a branch of engineering, nanotechnology concerns
itself with the design and manufacture of objects and structures built at
the molecular level of matter.
Nanotechnology derives its name from the nanometer, an SI unit
of measurement equaling one billionth of a meter, or roughly equivalent to
the diameter of four medium-sized atoms. (SI stands for International
System of Units.) Nanotechnology is not just one science but a
broad field of investigation, embracing many disciplines of engineering,
physics, chemistry, and the life sciences. General areas of study include:
- Nanomachines: Also called assemblers or nanorobots, build
objects and materials by aggregating raw materials one molecule at a
- Nanomaterials: Perfectly consistent, flawless aggregations of
matter that have extraordinary properties. These materials are
characterized by massive strength to weight ratios, perfect physical and
chemical stability, and superconductivity.
- Nanoparticles: Already widely used in a variety of
applications ranging from medicine and advanced optical coatings to
making carpet stay nice longer, nanoscale particles have dramatically
different chemistries of interaction than the same compounds packaged in
larger units of matter.
In a larger sense, nanotechnology is a thought revolution in
manufacturing and materials science. Rather than spending unbounded
periods of time searching for the right material with which to
attempt to solve a problem, nanotechnology allows researchers and
innovators to simply design the right solution, then assemble
optimum materials or nanorobots to affect it. Consider the case of the
incandescent light bulb. First demonstrated in 1802 by Humphrey Davy,
electric lighting was not perfected for practical use until 78 years
later, when Thomas Edison discovered how to make a long-lasting
filament. The search for satisfactory filament material caused an
eight decades’ delay, because the limitations of working with naturally
occurring materials involved a lengthy process of trial and error.
Nanotechnology is still a very young field of study and much of its most
promising applications lie ahead. However, early achievements are powering
solutions to problems in computing, medicine, transportation, energy, and
- Nanoscale circuits are pushing the size and power requirements ever
lower for computer processor chips and storage devices.
- Nanoscale particles are being used to preferentially target cancer
cells with chemotherapy agents, sparing surrounding healthy tissue.
- Carbon nanotube materials used in auto and aerospace components have
dramatically increased strength-to-weight ratios and are not susceptible
to failure from fatigue like metal alloys.
- Researchers have used nanotechnologies to create soft, lightweight,
easily portable solar cell arrays.
- US military forces use nanostructured materials to protect vehicles,
improve armor, and build autonomous combat vehicles.
As revealed by Valuates Reports, the global nanotechnology market, valued
at $1.76 billion in 2020, is projected to reach $33.63 billion by 2030,
registering an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 36.4
percent over the 2021 to 2030 forecast period.
Among the key market drivers are the increasing use of nanotechnology for
- Medical diagnosis and imaging
- Aerospace and defense applications
In addition, realizing the potential of nanotechnology, both in the
public and private sectors, various governments are funding new R&D
Among the prominent private sector players in the nanotech space are:
- Altair Nanotechnologies Inc.
- Applied Nanotech
- Advanced Nano Products Co.
- Bruker Corporation
- Biosensors International Group
- Espin Technologies
- Imina Technologies SA.
- Kleindiek Nanotechnik GmbH
- Nanonics Imaging Ltd.
- Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.1
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Nanotechnology derives its name from the tiny size of the constituent
components, which are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter.
Just how small is a billionth of a meter? It is:
- The thickness of one drop of water spread over a square meter.
- The approximate amount fingernails grow in a second.
- The slippage on the San Andreas Fault in half a second.
- Ten times the diameter of a single hydrogen atom.
- About 1/500th the width of a human hair.
Nanotechnology was suggested as early as 1959 by Nobel Prize winning
physicist, Richard Feynman, famed for his “Feynman Lectures on
Physics.” Feynman’s talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,”
foreshadowed the practical use of molecular scale tools to affect
solutions to problems in materials science and engineering. Among other
things, Feynman predicted that information could be stored at densities
which seemed impossible at the time but are a demonstrated reality now.
The term “nanotechnology” was coined in 1974 by Tokyo Science University
Professor Norio Taniguchi to describe the precision machining of materials
to within atomic-scale dimensional tolerances.
As BCC Research observes, “The invention of the scanning tunneling
microscope (STM) in 1981 and the atomic force microscope (AFM) five years
later made it possible to not only photograph individual atoms, but to
actually move a single atom around. In a striking demonstration of the new
technologies’ potential, John Foster of IBM managed to spell “IBM” with 35
xenon atoms on a nickel surface using an STM to push the atoms into
Though less glamorous than some of the more futuristic possibilities,
today’s nanomaterials are being combined with conventional materials to
improve the functionality of ubiquitous, seemingly ordinary items.
Examples of products benefiting from the advanced properties of nanoscale
- Paints and coatings used to protect against corrosion, scratches, and
- Protective and glare-reducing coatings for eyeglasses and cars.
- Metal-cutting tools.
- Sunscreens and cosmetics.
- Longer-lasting tennis balls
- More responsive and powerful baseball bats, golf clubs, and tennis
- Stain-free clothing and mattresses.
- Nanostructured fabrics that selectively repel or absorb various
classes of compounds.
- Dental-bonding agents.
- Burn and wound dressings that promote healing and reduce scarring.
- Automobile catalytic converters.
Nanotech: Industrial Revolution 2.0
Among other things, nanotechnology is a fundamentally molecular approach
to manufacturing and materials science. The key significance of
nanotechnology is that it offers not just better products, but
revolutionary changes in the production process for objects, drugs, and
- Assembling objects one molecule at a time means the virtual
elimination of raw material waste and the elimination of waste
translates to lower costs.
- Building objects from perfect, engineered materials achieves dramatic
improvements in safety, quality, and durability.
- In the medical and pharmaceutical arena, wet milling processes allow
drug manufacturers to create nanoscale drug delivery mechanisms.
Introducing drugs into the body with a molecular level of precision
means superior effectiveness and dramatically reduced side effects for
patients. Diseases that were once a virtual death sentence may soon
- Nanostructured materials provide superlative strength-to-weight
ratios, spectacularly increased electrical conductivity, complete
physical and chemical stability, and other properties which enable a
vast array of aerospace, automotive, energy, and medical applications.
Progressing from promise to reality, nanotechnology is being applied
across a wide range of disciplines, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Nanotechnology Is Everywhere
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Prominent examples include the following:
Electronics and IT Applications – Flexible, bendable,
foldable, rollable, and stretchable electronics are reaching into various
sectors and are being integrated into a variety of products, including
wearables, medical applications, aerospace applications, and the Internet
of Things. Flexible electronics have been developed using, for example,
semiconductor nanomembranes for applications in smartphone and e-reader
displays. Other nanomaterials like graphene and cellulosic nanomaterials
are being used for various types of flexible electronics to enable
wearable and “tattoo” sensors, photovoltaics that can be sewn onto
clothing, and electronic paper that can be rolled up. Making flat,
flexible, lightweight, non-brittle, highly efficient electronics opens the
door to countless smart products.
As reported by analyst Brooke Becher, in another, more significant
development, “Scientists anticipate Moore’s law [which predicts that the
number of transistors packed into a circuit of a given size would be able
to double every two years will] hit an inevitable wall, pushing [the]
primary composite – silicon – to its optimization limit. Thinner
nanomaterials, like graphene, and structural formations, like
one-dimensional carbon nanotubing, are currently being considered to
architect the next generation of computing transistors.
“In 2021, IBM announced that it had successfully developed a silicon
semiconductor sized at just two nanometers. It holds a 45 percent higher
performance rate than today’s most advanced chips, more than triple its
size, a press release stated. For reference, this would allow 50 billion
transistors to be crammed into a fingernail-sized chip.”3
Energy Applications – Nanotechnology can be incorporated
into solar panels to convert sunlight to electricity more efficiently,
promising inexpensive solar power in the future. Nanostructured solar
cells could be cheaper to manufacture and easier to install, since they
can use print-like manufacturing processes and can be made in flexible
rolls rather than discrete panels. Newer research suggests that future
solar converters might even be “paintable”.
Environmental Remediation Applications –
Nanotechnology-enabled sensors and solutions are now able to detect and
identify chemical or biological agents in the air and soil with much
higher sensitivity than ever before. Researchers are investigating
particles such as self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous supports
(SAMMS), dendrimers, and carbon nanotubes to determine how to apply their
unique chemical and physical properties for various kinds of toxic site
remediation. Another sensor has been developed by NASA as a smartphone
extension that firefighters can use to monitor air quality around fires.
Desalination – Persistent or frequent drought is a
devastating condition affecting large areas of the planet. One of the
solutions for water-challenged populations is desalination, or the process
of transforming salt water from nearby seas and oceans into fresh water.
Traditionally expensive, researchers are experimenting with nanotechnology
– in one case, nano-sized electrodes – to reduce the overall cost and
energy of salt removal.4
Medical and Healthcare Applications – Nanotechnology is
being studied for both the diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis, or
the buildup of plaque in arteries. In one technique, researchers created a
nanoparticle that mimics the body’s “good” cholesterol, known as HDL
(high-density lipoprotein), which helps to shrink plaque.
Research in the use of nanotechnology for regenerative medicine spans
several application areas, including bone and neural tissue engineering.
For instance, novel materials can be engineered to mimic the crystal
mineral structure of human bone or used as a restorative resin for dental
applications. Researchers are looking for ways to grow complex tissues
with the goal of one day growing human organs for transplant. Researchers
are also studying ways to use graphene nanoribbons to help repair spinal
Transportation Applications – Nanoscale sensors and
devices may provide cost-effective continuous monitoring of the structural
integrity and performance of bridges, tunnels, rails, parking structures,
and pavements over time. Nanoscale sensors, communications devices, and
other innovations enabled by nanoelectronics can also support an enhanced
transportation infrastructure that can communicate with vehicle-based
systems to help drivers maintain lane position, avoid collisions, adjust
travel routes to avoid congestion, and improve drivers’ interfaces to
Everyday Things – In addition to high-tech applications,
nanotechnology is fueling innovation at the consumer level. As chronicled
by analyst Bernard Marr, everyday applications include:
- Sunscreen, where nanoparticles block UV radiation.
- Clothing, where nanoparticles repel water and other
- Furniture, where carbon nanofibers reduce
- Adhesives, where “nano-glue” retains it stickiness
even at high temperatures.
- Tennis equipment, where nanotechnology helps tennis
balls keep their bounce and tennis racquets hold their strength.6
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Some Advocate a Slowdown
Despite its obvious benefits as reflected by public and private
investment, nanotechnology has its share of skeptics and
detractors. There are several major concerns among the “go slow”
- Although it is not yet a practical reality, the fact that it is
possible to create nanomachines (or assemblers) implies that it is at
least theoretically possible to create self-replicating
nanomachines, also called artificial replicators. (Essentially,
this is what a germ is: a weedy, self-replicating
organism.) Losing control of a self-replicating nanomachine is pretty
clearly a nightmare scenario.
- Exposure to nanoparticles could present human and environmental health
risks of which we are not currently aware. Before permitting
widespread use of nanotechnology, we need to have a better understanding
of nanotech pathology issues. Certain studies show that inhaling
nanoparticles may be “potentially carcinogenic or allergenic, and dermal
exposures may be sensitizing.”7
- Nanotechnology has significant military uses that must be understood,
and for which there must be an effective system of accountability.
- More ominously, as analyst Nicholas Winstead observes, “Nanotechnology
is becoming increasingly cheap and user-friendly. This ‘democratization’
of nanotech creates more opportunities for bad actors to engineer
Nanotechnology Standards Are Needed
As with other scientific and engineering investments, the development of
nanotechnology must be governed by reasonable, reliable, and recognized
standards and best practices.
At present, some of the leading standards-setting organizations and their
relevant nanotechnology committees are:
- International Standardization Organization (ISO) Technical Committee
(TC) 229 on Nanotechnologies
- ASTM International Committee E56 (Nanotechnology) (formerly known as
the American Society for Testing and Materials)
- International Electrotechnical Commission Technical Committee 113
(Nanotechnology for electrotechnical products and systems)
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is challenging to control and administer owing to its dual
use: civilian and military. Ultimately, national governments will have to
intervene and supervise the standards-setting efforts.10
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Cellular biologic processes all take place at the nanoscale
level. Everything from the way in which DNA encodes the
characteristics of an organism to the day-to-day functions of cell
metabolism rely on interactions that happen on a molecular scale. For
this reason, much of what we learn about nanotechnology will be the result
of studying nature and extrapolating those lessons for our own purposes.
Insights from the National Nanotechnology Initiative
The US is promoting nanotechnology innovation worldwide with its National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The NNI is a research and
development (R&D) initiative involving more than 30 Federal
departments, independent agencies, and commissions working together toward
the shared vision of “a future in which the ability to understand and
control matter at the nanoscale leads to ongoing revolutions in
technology and industry that benefit society.”
The NNI’s five strategic goals are:
Goal 1. Ensure that the United States remains
a world leader in nanotechnology research and development.
Goal 2. Promote commercialization of
Goal 3. Provide the infrastructure to
sustainably support nanotechnology research, development, and deployment.
Goal 4. Engage the public and expand the
Goal 5. Ensure the responsible development of
The Nano Contribution to Space Exploration
NASA has a hundred-mile problem. By far the greatest cost in space
exploration is going the first hundred miles: Launching payloads measured
in tens of tons into low-earth orbit. In one of the more futuristic (some
would suggest fanciful) applications of nanotechnology, NASA envisions the
use of carbon nanotubes in the manufacture of super-long, super-strong
“space elevator” cables.
First popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1978 novel “Foundations of
Paradise,” the concept of a space elevator is relatively simple: Put
a platform in geosynchronous orbit and attach two cables. One cable
goes to the Earth and the other is attached to a captured asteroid that
acts a counterbalance to keep the platform from being pulled out of
orbit. Now put the equivalent of an elevator car on the cable and
presto, a space elevator, as depicted in Figure 1.
Instead of propelling satellites and other cargo into orbit by rocket,
people and materials would travel by space elevator.
Figure 2. Artist’s Rendition of Space Elevator
Source: NASA (Artist: Pat Rawling)
Nanotechnology and Climate Change
As analyst Themis Prodromakis observes, nanotechnology can be a powerful
instrument for curbing climate change. “The fight against climate change
means we need new ways to generate and use electricity, and nanotechnology
is already playing a role. It has helped create batteries that can store
more energy for electric cars and has enabled solar panels to convert more
sunlight into electricity.”11
Foreign and Domestic Espionage
In January 2020, the US Department of Justice announced that Dr. Charles
Lieber, chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Department, and two Chinese nationals were charged in connection with
aiding the People’s Republic of China. Dr. Lieber specialized in
In addition to China, other foreign actors, including potentially Russia,
Iran, and North Korea, have – or likely will – target critical
nanotechnology research, posing a considerable challenge for security and
law enforcement officials.
Domestic espionage (corporate-to-corporate) will likewise pose a threat.
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The ability to build on a molecular scale bestows nearly absolute control
over the nature of matter. On the one hand, very small things can be made:
Computers can become several orders of magnitude smaller and faster, and
storage devices can allocate a single molecule per bit of data. On the
other hand, large things can be made with perfect material structures.
Tall buildings, long bridges, and efficient spacecraft can be built from a
single homogeneous, flawless carbon crystal.
Combining nanotech manufacturing techniques with advanced information
technology resources, we can expect the “time to discovery” to be
dramatically compressed for new inventions and innovations. Anything that
can be designed on a computer could be prototyped instantly – in much the
same way that software is designed in Rapid Application Development
environments, with small changes being implemented, then tested all within
a few minutes.
Industry can cooperate with government institutions, professional
societies, and standards organizations to:
- Focus research priorities appropriately.
- Ensure the adequate training of scientists, engineers, and
- Address public safety and environmental concerns.
- Mitigate national security concerns.
- Look for nanotechnology investment opportunities.
- Stay abreast of nanotech developments that offer cheaper, greener,
more powerful alternatives to conventional products and processes.
- Avoid a nanotechnology “arms race” by promoting greater transparency
in research and development. In particular, establish treaties and other
accords to codify nanotechnology agreements between the US, Russia, and
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About the Author
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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst
and business writer with more than 30 years’ IT experience. A member
of “Who’s Who in Finance and Industry,” Mr. Barr has designed, developed,
and deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune 500
firms. He is the author of several books, including How to
Succeed in Business BY Really Trying, a member of Faulkner’s
Advisory Panel, and a senior editor for Faulkner’s Security
Management Practices. Mr. Barr can be reached via e-mail
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