What is Nanotechnology?
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Nanotechnology is the science of the small. Nanotechnology works with the tiniest of tiny matter to see how it reacts on a small scale versus when it is bulked together in larger sizes. For example, at such a small scale, some materials have different types of chemical reactions or respond differently to light or heat than they do when combined on a larger scale.
Scientists working with nanotechnology work on materials based off the nanoscale, where one nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Nanometers are so incredibly small that there are 245,000 in just one inch. While scholars across the globe have debated the true meaning of the term, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) – one of the largest federal interagency research and development programs – defines nanotechnology as involving "imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at the nanoscale."
History of nanotechnology
While physicist Richard Feynman originally broached the theory of nanotechnology in the late 1950s, it wasn't until the late 1970s that the science of nanotechnology really started being used. It was then that Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Eric Drexler came up with the idea of molecular manufacturing, a form on nanotechnology.
In 1986, Drexler published a book on molecular manufacturing and officially introduced the world to nanotechnology. The book helped spark interest in nanoscience and the endless possibilities of nanotechnology. In 2000, the U.S. government launched the country's first national nanotechnology program, the NNI. Over the last 12 years, the U.S. government has invested more than $15 billion in nanoscale science, engineering and technology through the NNI.
Current nanotechnology applications
Over the last decade, scientists have uncovered a wide variety of ways to put nanotechnology to good use. Nanotechnology is now being used in everything from food and fabrics to medicine and electronics. Among the numerous examples of nanotechnology's applications today:
Polymer composite materials: Nanoscale additives are being used to help strengthen products like baseball bats, car bumpers and motorcycle helmets.
Clothes: Nanotechnology is being used to make clothing resistant to stains and wrinkles.
Glass: Nanomaterials are being added to thin films that can be placed over windows, computer monitors, eyeglasses and other types of glass to make the surfaces water-repellent, scratch-resistant and antireflective.
Food packaging: Nanotechnology is being used to make food packaging more protective of outside elements so the food inside stays fresher longer.
Displays: Televisions and computer monitors are among the devices incorporating nanotechnology into their screens as a way to provide brighter pictures in wider viewing angles.
Fuel: Nanotechnology is being used to boost the efficiency of fuel production from raw petroleum materials.
Medicine: Nanotechnology is being used in imaging equipment to help identify the early buildup of plaque in the arteries. [Video: Nanotechnology's Big Impact]
Sunscreen: Nanotechnology in sunscreen has made the lotions more transparent and smoother.
Windmills: Nanotechnology has been used to develop windmill blades that are strong and lighter, thus increasing the amount of electricity they can produce.
The future of nanotechnology
While nanotechnology already has widespread applications, the science is still expected to grow exponentially in the years to come. The National Academy of Science expects the market for nano products to "explode" over the next few years, generating $3 billion in sales by 2015, after the field already sold $1 billion worth of products in 2009. The academy also is concerned about nanotech safety. A 2012 report suggests a new national research group dedicated to studying nanotech's safety and environmental effects.
Nanoscientists are working now to develop nanotechnology that will deliver medicine directly to a body's diseased cells, and nanotechnology is being experimented with as a way to convert waste heat in things like computers, cars and houses into usable electric energy.
Nanotechnology will have a big impact on the environment in future years, as it will allow technology to clean ground water easier and more cheaply. Nanotechnology is also being developed to help strengthen road-building materials, as well as to help detect the structural performance of things like bridges and tunnels. Batteries, too, could benefit from nanotechnology in the future. Thanks to the tiny science, future batteries may have the ability to be good as new after sitting unused for years, while others will be able to recharge much more quickly than current rechargeable batteries. The possibilities are limitless.