A Tiny Little Primer on Nano-Scale Technology and the Little BANG Theory

What is nanotechnology?

Nano-scale technology is a suite of techniques used to manipulate matter at the scale of atoms and molecules. “Nano” is a measurement – not an object. Unlike “biotechnology,” where you know that bios (life) is being manipulated, “nanotechnology” speaks solely to scale. A “nanometre” (nm) equals one billionth of a metre. One human hair is about 80,000 nanometres thick. It takes ten atoms of hydrogen side-by-side to equal one nanometre. A DNA molecule is about 2.5 nm wide. A red blood cell is vast in comparison: about 5,000 nm in diameter. Everything on the nano-scale is invisible to the unaided eye and even to all but the most powerful microscopes.

Key to understanding the unique power and potential of nanotech is that, at the nano-scale (below about 100 nanometres), a material’s properties can change dramatically – these unexpected changes are called “quantum effects.” With only a reduction in size and no change in substance, materials can exhibit new properties such as electrical conductivity, elasticity, greater strength, different colour and greater reactivity – characteristics that the very same substances do not exhibit at the micro or macro scales. For example:

-Carbon in the form of graphite (like pencil lead) is soft and malleable; at the nano-scale carbon can be stronger than steel and is six times lighter

-Zinc oxide is usually white and opaque; at the nano-scale it becomes transparent

-Aluminum – the material of soft drink cans – can spontaneously combust at the nano-scale and could be used in rocket fuel.(1)

Scientists are exploiting property changes at the nano-scale to create new materials and modify existing ones. Companies are now manufacturing nanoparticles (i.e., chemical elements or compounds less than 100 nm in size) that are used in hundreds of commercial products. Nanotech’s “raw materials” are the chemical elements of the Periodic Table – the building blocks of everything – both living and non-living.  Nanotech tools and processes can be applied to virtually any manufactured good across all industry sectors, and that’s why the US National Science Foundation (NSF) predicts that nanotech will capture a $1 trillion market by 2011 or 2012.(2) Researchers are employing nanotech to make faster computers; cell-specific drugs; powerful new chemical catalysts (used in the processing of petroleum); sensors monitoring everything from crops to crooks to customers; stronger, lighter, smarter, more durable materials, etc. Nano-scale technologies are poised to become the strategic platform for global control of manufacturing, food, agriculture and health in the immediate years ahead.

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