Nanotechnology: FAQ


Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers (nm), where unique phenomena enable novel applications not feasible when working with bulk materials or even with single atoms or molecules. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick; a single gold atom is about a third of a nanometer in diameter.

Researchers seeking to understand the fundamentals of properties at the nanoscale call their work nanoscience; those focused on effective use of the properties call their work nanoengineering.

Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at the nanoscale.

The nanoscale is the dimensional range of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers.

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. (A meter is 39.37 inches, or slightly longer than one yard.) The prefix “nano” means “one billionth”, or 10-9, in the international system for units of weights and measure. The abbreviation for nanometer is “nm.”

Nanomaterials are all nanoscale materials or materials that contain nanoscale structures internally or on their surfaces. These can include engineered nano-objects, such as nanoparticles, nanotubes, and nanoplates, and naturally occuring nanoparticles, such as volcanic ash, sea spray, and smoke.

Nanoscale materials have been used for over a millenium. For example, nanoscale gold was used in stained glass in Medieval Europe and nanotubes were found in blades of swords made in Damascus. However, ten centuries passed before high-powered microscopes were invented, allowing us to see things at the nanoscale and begin working with materials at the nanoscale.

Nanotechnology as we now know it began about 30 years ago, when our tools to image and measure extended into the nanoscale. Around the turn of the millennium, government research managers in the United States and other countries observed that physicists, biologists, chemists, electrical engineers, optical engineers, and materials scientists were working on overlapping issues emerging at the nanoscale. In 2000, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was created to help these researchers benefit from each other’s insights and accelerate the technology’s development.

These are different types of nanomaterials, named for their individual shapes and dimensions. Think of these simply as objects with one or more dimension at the nanoscale.

Nanoparticles are bits of a material in which all three dimensions of the object are within the nanoscale. Nanotubes have a diameter in the nanoscale, but can be several hundred nanometers long—or even longer. Nanoplates have a thickness at the nanoscale, but their other two dimensions can be quite large.

Nanotechnology is used in many commercial products and processes, for example, nanomaterials are used to manufacture lightweight, strong materials for applications such as boat hulls, sporting equipment, and automotive parts. Nanomaterials are also used in sunscreens and cosmetics.

Nanostructured products are used to produce space-saving insulators which are useful when size and weight is at a premium—for example, when insulating long pipelines in remote places, or trying to reduce heat loss from an old house. Nanostructured catalysts make chemical manufacturing processes more efficient, by saving energy and reducing waste.

In healthcare, nanoceramics are used in some dental implants or to fill holes in diseased bones, because their mechanical and chemical properties can be “tuned” to attract bone cells from the surrounding tissue to make new bone. Some pharmaceutical products have been reformulated with nanosized particles to improve their absorption and make them easier to administer. Opticians apply nanocoatings to eyeglasses to make them easier to keep clean and harder to scratch and nanoenabled coatings are used on fabrics to make clothing stain-resistant and easy to care for.

Almost all high-performance electronic devices manufactured in the past decade use some nanomaterials. Nanotechnology helps build new transistor structures and interconnects for the fastest, most advanced computing chips.

All told, nanotechnologies are estimated to have impacted $251 billion across the global economy in 2009. This is estimated to grow to $2.4 trillion by 2015 (Lux Research, 2010).

Exciting new nanotechnology-based medicines are now in clinical trials, which may be available soon to treat patients. Some use nanoparticles to deliver toxic anti-cancer drugs targeted directly to tumors, minimizing drug damage to other parts of the body. Others help medical imaging tools, like MRIs and CAT scans, work better and more safely. Nanotechnology is helping scientists make our homes, cars, and businesses more energy-efficient through new fuel cells, batteries, and solar panels. It is also helping to find ways to purify drinking water and to detect and clean up environmental waste and damage.

Nanomaterials are being tested for use in food packaging to greatly improve shelf life and safety. Nanosensors to detect food-borne pathogens are also being developed for food packaging. New nanomaterials will be stronger, lighter, and more durable than the materials we use today in buildings, bridges, automobiles, and more. Scientists have experimented with nanomaterials that bend light in unique ways that may enable the development of an “invisibility cloak.” The possibilities seem limitless, and the future of nanotechnology holds great potential.

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), one of the largest Federal interagency R&D programs, coordinates funding for nanotechnology research and development among the 26 participating Federal departments and agencies. The NNI vision is a future in which the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale leads to a revolution in technology and industry that benefits society.

The NNI’s member agencies advance a world-class nanotechnology research and development program leading to new materials, devices, and products. The NNI supports the development of robust educational resources, a skilled workforce, supporting infrastructure and tools, as well as a coordinated research strategy to study the potential environmental, health, safety, and societal impacts of nanotechnology.

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) provides technical and administrative support to the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee, National Science and Technology Coucil, which coordinates the NNI. The NNCO serves as a central point of contact for Federal nanotechnology R&D activities, and it provides public outreach on behalf of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

The 2013 Federal Budget provides $1.8 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), reflecting steady growth in the NNI investment. The cumulative NNI investment since fiscal year 2001, including the 2013 request, now totals over $18 billion. Cumulative investments in nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety research since 2005 now total nearly $650 million. Cumulative investments in education and in research on ethical, legal, and other societal dimensions of nanotechnology since 2005 total more than $350 million.

The United States is not the only country to recognize the tremendous economic potential of nanotechnology. While difficult to measure accurately, estimates from 2008 showed the governments of the European Union (EU) and Japan invested approximately $1.7 billion and $950 million, respectively, in nanotechnology research and development. The governments of China, Korea, and Taiwan invested approximately $430 million, $310 million, and $110 million, respectively. This compares to 2008 U.S. Government spending of $1.55 billion.

Nanotechnology has the potential to profoundly change our economy and improve our standard of living, in much the same way as information technology advances have revolutionized our lives and the economy over the past two decades. While some commercial products are beginning to come to market, many major applications for nanotechnology are still 5-10 years away. Private investors look for short-term returns on investment, generally in the range of 1-3 years. Consequently, government support for nanotechnology research and development in its early stages is required to ensure that the United States can maintain a competitive position in the worldwide nanotechnology marketplace while realizing nanotechnology’s full potential.

The NNI itself is not a funding program; funding is provided through the NNI member agencies. There are various mechanisms for funding research through these agencies.

A 2008 survey estimated that there were about 400,000 workers worldwide in the field of nanotechnology, with an estimated 150,000 of those in the United States.

A study funded by the National Science Foundation projects that 6 million nanotechnology workers will be needed worldwide by 2020, with 2 million of those jobs in the United States.

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