If you are like me and follow science and developments fairly closely, you would definitely know that there’s a new gun in the town. From nano-mites to space elevators, nanotechnology has stirred imaginations of many scientists, inspired many entrepreneurs and now slowly finding its way to every common household.
The question, “what’s nanotechnology?” can be answered with a very generalized answer: manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers. This definition of nanotechnology is quite accepted among many scientists, although there can be slight modifications depending on field. Many experts agree that future of nanotechnology is already sealed and it is to be the next big thing in science.
Nanotechnology and nanoscale
We looked at the nanotechnology definition but for some it can still little abstruse. Let me dissect it for you. First, it’s a technology developed for manipulation of matter. Like a metalsmith manipulate metal and carpenter the wood, nanotechnologist also manipulate matter. But the main differentiation of nanotechnologist from others is the size and scale of the matter he or she choose to manipulate. This bring us to the second part of the nanotechnology definition: matter at least one dimension from 1 to 100 nanometers. Before going forward, let’s first discuss what nanometer is and how big or small it is compared to the scale we usually work with. Most of technologists like carpenters, metalsmiths, stonemiths, etc, usually work on the matter in the scale of meters, centimeters or in some cases millimeters. But nanometer is far smaller than any of these units. To grasp this strange scale we talk about, just think of a millimeter. If you divide this millimeter in to thousand equal segments and pick one of them, and then again divide that in to thousand equal segments, you would find one nanometer. It’s such a small unit of length and sometimes difficult to comprehend without effort, yet nanotechnologist can build things in this scale. To do this nanotechnologists have tools and techniques like any other craftsmen does. So simply, nanotechnology is this set of tools and techniques scientists use to manipulate matter at the scale of 1 to 100 nm.
Photo Credit: Confinement of electrons to quantum corrals on a metal surface – Crommie, Lutz and Eigler (1993) Science 262, pp. 218-220
Figure: Atomic corral made by manipulation of Iron atoms on a copper surface
There’s no better example to show how powerful we are in nano level matter manipulation than the one shown in the above picture. It’s an image of a quantum corral only one nanometer long made by scientists through atom by atom manipulation. You would need more than 300,000 of these just to fit around a single human hair. Just imagine the level of technology you would require to do something like this and to image this as it happens.
Nature at nanoscale
Our advances in nanotechnology however, is deceptive. We may think we are good at it but we are very far from the nanotechnological feats performed by nature; the ultimate nanotechnologist. Looking closely in to the natural things, we see the complex structures, patterns and processes exist in them at the nanoscale . Examples of nanotechnology are everywhere. Super water repellency on lotus leafs, brilliant colors in butterfly wings, extreme wall climbing ability of geckos, color changing ability of octopus are all great feats of nature nanotechnology. But in my view, the greatest nature nanotechnology achievement is simply us; humans. We all started our journey as a single cell. We were built atom by atom, molecule by molecule through the nanoscale processes that nature has devised to make what we are today.
Figure : Nanolevelfeatures on a lotus leaf surface that render its surface superhydrophobic
Ultimate goal of nanotechnology
Thinking in this line, it’s not difficult to figure out why scientists are so intrigued about the nanotechnology and the science that surrounds it. This fascination towards nanoscience and nanotechnology is simply due to one true goal of every scientist in the world; extreme control over matter. This will enable us to design and built things that are par with or surpass the things that are naturally made.