For the uninitiated, nanotechnology can seem like an inaccessible subject at best, and bordering on science fiction at worst – but these could not be further from the truth. Nanotechnology exists, has very real practical applications and, with further development, could change the technological landscape for years to come. As such, here is a brief guide to nanotechnology: what it means, how it works and what it could mean for the future.
What Is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is simply the technological application of nanoscience, which itself has a simple definition; nanoscience involves study and invention on a nanoscopic scale. The ‘nano’ prefix, while colloquially used to describe something extremely miniscule in size, has a specific definition and purpose as an SI unit, alongside common terms like ‘micro’, ‘milli’ and ‘mega’. Where a millimeter (1mm) represents a measurement of length three orders of magnitude smaller than the meter, a nanometer (1nm) represents a measurement of length nine orders of magnitude smaller than the meter.
Nanotechnology is founded on the engineering of systems and inventions in the nanoscale, or between 1nm and 100nm in size. Contrary to the fictional depictions of nanotechnology as miniscule, smart machines repairing materials or acting autonomously, nanotechnology encompasses a wide range of innovations across the entire STEM field – and often simply utilizes the unique properties of miniscule objects to achieve a purpose or confer a benefit. Nanotechnology is not a far-fetched concept, or even a recent invention: it is present in nature, from hemoglobin proteins in our blood to nanoscopic bristles that give geckos feet their adhesive quality.
Nanotechnology in Everyday Life
Nanotechnology is already a common feature of products and tools we consider ‘everyday’. Sunscreen is a perfect example, utilizing nanoparticles of inorganic compounds such as zinc oxide to boost the UV-blocking qualities of the product. Computers are a popular point of speculation for the future of nanotechnology, but there are already present-day applications for computing. Semiconductors, which form the base components of CPUs, have been developed on the nanoscale, enabling the building of CPUs with smaller form-factors – and even the invention of the first nanoscale microchip. However, as the chips adhere to the same design principles to current and past computers, they still require careful temperature regulation with thermal compounds. Nanoparticles also have useful applications in the creation of resistant and hydrophobic materials, allowing manufacturers to use spill-resistant fabrics in upholstery, or even stain-repellent paints and varnishes for metals.
The Future of Nanotechnology
The sky is the limit for nanotechnology in the future, as technological developments make it easier to work with and develop nanomaterials. One of the more popular assertions for where nanotechnology could be headed is in the form of medical nanomachines, which could take a variety of forms – whether mimicking natural nanoparticles or transporting medicines to specific parts of the body. Computing will continue to benefit from developments in nanotech, enabling the invention of ever-smaller and more powerful computers for a range of commercial and business uses.