What Is Nanotechnology?

A Quick Definition of Nanotechnology and Nanoscience

Nanos is the Greek term for Dwarf. Walt Disney could have given the nanotechnology industry a kickstart back in 1937 if he only titled his classic movie Snow White and the Seven Nanos instead of Seven Dwarfs. Maybe not, but nano is definitely smaller than any dwarf you have ever seen on the big screen.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)scientist uses a Compound Semiconductor Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE) System to grow semiconductor samples in the Semiconductor Growth lab at the Solar Energy Research Facility at NREL. MBE systems are considered a fundamental tool for developing nanotechnologies. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash.

Nanotechnology is widely considered to be the field of applied science and technology where the control of matter on the molecular level occurs, smaller than 1 micrometer, but usually 1 to 100 nanometers (see How Big Is A Nanometer below), and the creation of devices within that size range. Although natural nanomaterials are all around us, nanotechnology is typically focused on and composed of human-made nanomaterials that occur from objects or processes created by people. 

Micro Nano Tech Education Center (MNT-EC) Center Manager, Billie Copley, simplifies the above definition: “Nanoscience,  generally speaking, is the observation, study and manipulation of matter on the atomic and molecular level. Nanotechnology uses the data gathered by nanoscience to improve or develop new materials and techniques.”

It is a multidisciplinary field, drawing from diverse areas of science and technology from applied physics to materials science; colloidal science to mechanical and electrical engineering, to name a few. These scientific areas are also leveraging a new generation of analytical tools such as the atomic force microscope (AFM), and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to take nanotechnology even further. 

How Big Is A Nanometer, Actually?

Most sites try to define nanotechnology by sharing sizes that our brains can barely imagine. Nano means one-billionth — a billionth of one meter is one nanometer. We cannot see nano without the aid of a powerful microscope, like a super powerful microscope. The Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC) website launched last week with a post about Biomedical Research that our colleague, Dr. Neda Habibi, at Northwest Vista College, is providing students with research opportunities using microscopes that are powerful like the Hubble Space Telescope, if you could flip the Hubble into atomic mode.

To help people with size, nanotechnology sites often state that a human hair is 80,000 nm wide. Nanotechnology lives and works in sizes below 100 nm. To put that human hair scale in another context, “the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the earth” according to National Geographic

The magazine offers an encyclopedia, of sorts, and within it is the Nanotechnology section for grades 9 through 12-plus. They share some additional concepts that probably will not help you visualize how small a nanometer is, but may help you mentally wrestle with just how tiny it is:

  • Your fingernails grow about one nanometer every second.
  • When a seagull lands on an aircraft carrier, it sinks about one nanometer.
  • A man’s beard grows about a nanometer between the time he picks up a razor and lifts it to his face.

One of the best explorations attempting to define nanotechnology comes from WIRED magazine’s YouTube channel on October 8, 2020 (see below). They asked an expert nanotechnology researcher at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center (IBM Research), Dr. George S. Tulevski, to explain the concept of nanotechnology to 5 different people; a child, a teen, a college student, a grad student, and an expert. In this 24-minute video, viewers receive far more than definitions, but listen in on increasingly detailed and in-depth conversations of what nanotechnology is and can be in the future. 


Stay tuned as we will continue to update and provide resources at this “What Is Nanotechnology?” post.