Nanotechnology (sometimes shortened to “nanotech”) is the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular scale. Generally, nanotechnology deals with developing materials, devices, or other structures possessing at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometres. Nanotechnology is considered a key technology for the future. Consequently, various governments have invested billions of dollars in its future.
Nanotechnology is the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. This covers both current work and concepts that are more advanced. In its original sense, nanotechnology refers to the projected ability to construct items from the bottom up, using techniques and tools being developed today to make complete, high performance products.
One nanometer (nm) is one billionth, or 10−9, of a meter. By comparison, typical carbon-carbon bond lengths, or the spacing between these atoms in a molecule, are in the range 0.12–0.15 nm. By convention, nanotechnology is taken as the scale range 1 to 100 nm following the definition used by the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the US. These new phenomena make nanotechnology distinct from devices which are merely miniaturised versions of an equivalent macroscopic device; such devices are on a larger scale and come under the description of microtechnology.
Nanotechnology is very diverse, ranging from extensions of conventional device physics to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, from developing new materials with dimensions on the nanoscale to direct control of matter on the atomic scale. Nanotechnology entails the application of fields of science as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, microfabrication, etc.
Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology. In the “bottom-up” approach, materials and devices are built from molecular components which assemble themselves chemically by principles of molecular recognition. In the “top-down” approach, nano-objects are constructed from larger entities without atomic-level control.
Scientists debate the future implications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production. On the other hand, nanotechnology raises many of the same issues as any new technology, including concerns about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials, and their potential effects on global economics, as well as speculation about various doomsday scenarios. These concerns have led to a debate among advocacy groups and governments on whether special regulation of nanotechnology is warranted.
Top-down and bottom-up approaches
Top-down and bottom-up are two approaches for the manufacture of products. These terms were first applied to the field of nanotechnology by the Foresight Institute in 1989 in order to distinguish between molecular manufacturing (to mass-produce large atomically precise objects) and conventional manufacturing (which can mass-produce large objects that are not atomically precise). Bottom-up approaches seek to have smaller (usually molecular) components built up into more complex assemblies, while top-down approaches seek to create nanoscale devices by using larger, externally controlled ones to direct their assembly.
The top-down approach often uses the traditional workshop or microfabrication methods where externally controlled tools are used to cut, mill, and shape materials into the desired shape and order. Micropatterning techniques, such as photolithography and inkjet printing belong to this category.
Bottom-up approaches, in contrast, use the chemical properties of single molecules to cause single-molecule components to (a) self-organize or self-assemble into some useful conformation, or (b) rely on positional assembly. These approaches utilize the concepts of molecular self-assembly and/or molecular recognition. See also Supramolecular chemistry. Such bottom-up approaches should, broadly speaking, be able to produce devices in parallel and much cheaper than top-down methods, but could potentially be overwhelmed as the size and complexity of the desired assembly increases.
History of Nanotechnology
The history of nanotechnology traces the development of the concepts and experimental work falling under the broad category of nanotechnology. Although nanotechnology is a relatively recent development in scientific research, the development of its central concepts happened over a longer period of time. The emergence of nanotechnology in the 1980s was caused by the convergence of experimental advances such as the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981 and the discovery of fullerenes in 1985, with the elucidation and popularization of a conceptual framework for the goals of nanotechnology beginning with the 1986 publication of the book Engines of Creation. The field was subject to growing public awareness and controversy in the early 2000s, with prominent debates about both its potential implications as well as the feasibility of the applications envisioned by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, and with governments moving to promote and fund research into nanotechnology. The early 2000s also saw the beginnings of commercial applications of nanotechnology, although these were limited to bulk applications of nanomaterials rather than the transformative applications envisioned by the field.
Larger to smaller: a materials perspective
A number of physical phenomena become pronounced as the size of the system decreases. These include statistical mechanical effects, as well as quantum mechanical effects, for example the “quantum size effect” where the electronic properties of solids are altered with great reductions in particle size. This effect does not come into play by going from macro to micro dimensions. However, quantum effects become dominant when the nanometer size range is reached, typically at distances of 100 nanometers or less, the so called quantum realm. Additionally, a number of physical (mechanical, electrical, optical, etc.) properties change when compared to macroscopic systems. One example is the increase in surface area to volume ratio altering mechanical, thermal and catalytic properties of materials. Diffusion and reactions at nanoscale, nanostructures materials and nanodevices with fast ion transport are generally referred to nanoionics. Mechanical properties of nanosystems are of interest in the nanomechanics research. The catalytic activity of nanomaterials also opens potential risks in their interaction with biomaterials.
Materials reduced to the nanoscale can show different properties compared to what they exhibit on a macroscale, enabling unique applications. For instance, opaque substances become transparent (copper); stable materials turn combustible (aluminum); insoluble materials become soluble (gold). A material such as gold, which is chemically inert at normal scales, can serve as a potent chemical catalyst at nanoscales. Much of the fascination with nanotechnology stems from these quantum and surface phenomena that matter exhibits at the nanoscale.
Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) is a technology based on the ability to build structures to complex, atomic specifications by means of mechanosynthesis. This is distinct from nanoscale materials. Based on Richard Feynman’s vision of miniature factories using nanomachines to build complex products (including additional nanomachines), this advanced form of nanotechnology (or molecular manufacturing) would make use of positionally-controlled mechanosynthesis guided by molecular machine systems. MNT would involve combining physical principles demonstrated by chemistry, other nanotechnologies, and the molecular machinery of life with the systems engineering principles found in modern macroscale factories.
While conventional chemistry uses inexact processes obtaining inexact results, and biology exploits inexact processes to obtain definitive results, molecular nanotechnology would employ original definitive processes to obtain definitive results. The desire in molecular nanotechnology would be to balance molecular reactions in positionally-controlled locations and orientations to obtain desired chemical reactions, and then to build systems by further assembling the products of these reactions.
Tools and techniques
There are several important modern developments. The atomic force microscope (AFM) and the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) are two early versions of scanning probes that launched nanotechnology.
The tip of a scanning probe can also be used to manipulate nanostructures (a process called positional assembly). Feature-oriented scanning methodology appears to be a promising way to implement these nanomanipulations in automatic mode. However, this is still a slow process because of low scanning velocity of the microscope.
Various techniques of nanolithography such as optical lithography, X-ray lithography dip pen nanolithography, electron beam lithography or nanoimprint lithography were also developed. Lithography is a top-down fabrication technique where a bulk material is reduced in size to nanoscale pattern.
Another group of nanotechnological techniques include those used for fabrication of nanotubes and nanowires, those used in semiconductor fabrication such as deep ultraviolet lithography, electron beam lithography, focused ion beam machining, nanoimprint lithography, atomic layer deposition, and molecular vapor deposition, and further including molecular self-assembly techniques such as those employing di-block copolymers. However, all of these techniques preceded the nanotech era, and are extensions in the development of scientific advancements rather than techniques which were devised with the sole purpose of creating nanotechnology and which were results of nanotechnology research.
The top-down approach anticipates nanodevices that must be built piece by piece in stages, much as manufactured items are made. Scanning probe microscopy is an important technique both for characterization and synthesis of nanomaterials. Atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes can be used to look at surfaces and to move atoms around. By designing different tips for these microscopes, they can be used for carving out structures on surfaces and to help guide self-assembling structures.
In contrast, bottom-up techniques build or grow larger structures atom by atom or molecule by molecule. These techniques include chemical synthesis, self-assembly and positional assembly. Dual polarisation interferometry is one tool suitable for characterisation of self assembled thin films. Another variation of the bottom-up approach is molecular beam epitaxy or MBE. MBE allows scientists to lay down atomically precise layers of atoms and, in the process, build up complex structures. Important for research on semiconductors, MBE is also widely used to make samples and devices for the newly emerging field of spintronics.
However, new therapeutic products, based on responsive nanomaterials, such as the ultradeformable, stress-sensitive Transfersome vesicles, are under development and already approved for human use in some countries.
With nanotechnology, a large set of materials and improved products rely on a change in the physical properties when the feature sizes are shrunk. Nanoparticles, for example, take advantage of their dramatically increased surface area to volume ratio. Their optical properties, e.g. fluorescence, become a function of the particle diameter. When brought into a bulk material, nanoparticles can strongly influence the mechanical properties of the material, like stiffness or elasticity. For example, traditional polymers can be reinforced by nanoparticles resulting in novel materials which can be used as lightweight replacements for metals. Therefore, an increasing societal benefit of such nanoparticles can be expected. Such nanotechnologically enhanced materials will enable a weight reduction accompanied by an increase in stability and improved functionality. Practical nanotechnology is essentially the increasing ability to manipulate (with precision) matter on previously impossible scales, presenting possibilities which many could never have imagined – it therefore seems unsurprising that few areas of human technology are exempt from the benefits which nanotechnology could potentially bring.
Health and Environmental impacts of nanotechnology
The health impacts of nanotechnology are the possible effects that the use of nanotechnological materials and devices will have on human health. As nanotechnology is an emerging field, there is great debate regarding to what extent nanotechnology will benefit or pose risks for human health. Nanotechnology’s health impact can be split into two aspects: the potential for nanotechnological innovations to have medical applications to cure disease, and the potential health hazards posed by exposure to nanomaterials.
The environmental impacts of nanotechnology are the possible effects that the use of nanotechnological materials and devices will have on the environment. As nanotechnology is an emerging field, there is great debate regarding to what extent industrial and commercial use of nanomaterials will affect organisms and ecosystems.
Nanotechnology’s environmental impact can be split into two aspects: the potential for nanotechnological innovations to help improve the environment, and the possibly novel type of pollution that nanotechnological materials might cause if released into the environment.
Regulation of nanotechnology
Because of the ongoing controversy on the implications of nanotechnology, there is significant debate concerning whether nanotechnology or nanotechnology-based products merit special government regulation. This mainly relates to when to assess new substances prior to their release into the market, community and environment.
Nanotechnology refers to an increasing number of commercially available products – from socks and trousers to tennis racquets and cleaning cloths. Such nanotechnologies and their accompanying industries have triggered calls for increased community participation and effective regulatory arrangements. However, these calls have presently not led to such comprehensive regulation to oversee research and the commercial application of nanotechnologies, or any comprehensive labeling for products that contain nanoparticles or are derived from nano-processes.
Regulatory bodies such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. or the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate of the European Commission have started dealing with the potential risks posed by nanoparticles. So far, neither engineered nanoparticles nor the products and materials that contain them are subject to any special regulation regarding production, handling or labelling.