The definition most frequently used by government and industry involves structures, devices, and systems having novel properties and functions due to the arrangement of their atoms on the 1 to 100 nanometer scale.
Many fields of endeavor contribute to nanotechnology, including molecular physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
Due to the extreme breadth and generality of this definition, many prefer to use the term “nanotechnologies.” For clarity, it is also useful to differentiate between near-term and long-term prospects, or to segment the field into first-generation through fourth-generation stages.
How is nanotech different from biotech?
Based on the definition of nanotech given above, biotech can be thought of as a subset of nanotech – “nature’s nanotechnology.” Biotech uses the molecular structures, devices, and systems found in plants and animals to create new molecular products. Nanotech is more general, not being limited to existing natural structures, devices, and systems, and instead designing and building new, non-biological ones. These can be quite different: harder, stronger, tougher, and able to survive a dry or hot environment, unlike biology. For example, nanotech products can be used to build an automobile or spacecraft.
Why develop nanotechnology?
Gaining better control over the structure of matter has been a primary project of our species since we started chipping flint. The quality of all human-made goods depends on the arrangement of their atoms. The cost of our products depends on how difficult it is for us to get the atoms and molecules to connect up the way we want them. The amount of energy used – and pollution created – depends on the methods we use to place and connect the molecules into a given product. The goal of nanotechnology is to improve our control over how we build things, so that our products can be of the highest quality and while causing the lowest environmental impact. Nanotech is even expected to help us heal the damage our past cruder and dirtier technologies have caused to the biosphere.
Where is nanotechnology being developed?
Research and development of nanotechnology is taking place worldwide. As this is written, government spending is at approximately one billion U.S. dollars in each of four global areas: (1) the United States, (2) Europe, (3) Japan, and (4) the rest of the world, including China, Israel, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and India. Similar amounts are said to be being spent in the private sector, with these figures being quite difficult to determine accurately due to the breadth of the nanotech definition, which includes a large number of older technologies.
Which country leads in nanotechnology?
World leadership in nanotechnology varies according to which sub-category of technology is being examined. In general, nanotechnology is unlike a number of recent major technological innovations in that the U.S. does not hold a very strong lead at the start. High quality work is taking place around the world, including countries with a higher fraction of engineering graduates, much lower R&D costs, and (unfortunately) less-stringent environmental standards.
How can nanotechnology promise to build products with both extreme precision in structure and environmental cleanliness in the production process?
Traditional manufacturing builds in a “top down” fashion, taking a chunk of material and removing chunks of it – for example, by grinding, or by dissolving with acids – until the final product part is achieved. The goal of nanotechnology is to instead build in a “bottom-up” fashion, starting with individual molecules and bringing them together to form product parts in which every atom is in a precise, designed location. In comparison with the top-down approach, this method could potentially have much less material left over, greatly reducing pollution.
In practice, both top-down and bottom-up methods are useful and being actively pursued at the nanoscale. However, the ultimate goal of building products with atomic precision will require a bottom-up approach.