National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

How Big?

Nanotechnology deals with the very smallest components of our world – atoms and molecules. Trying to understand just how small the nanoscale is can be very difficult for people. A nanometer is a unit of measurement for length just as you have with meters and centimeters. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, 0.000000001 or 10-9 meters. The word nano comes from the Greek word for “dwarf.” The term nanoscale is used to refer to objects with dimensions on the order of 1-100 nanometers (nm).

To understand how small a nanometer is, we typically compare the nanoscale to objects that we know how big or small they are.  Here are some examples:

  • a human hair is about 60,000 – 80,000 nm wide
  • a fingernail grows 1 nm per second
  • a DNA molecule is 2-3 nm in wide
  • A 2 meter person is 6 feet 6 inches tall or 2 billion nanometers

Another way to help in the understanding of the minuteness of a nanometer is to examine objects on a size scale.  Follow this link to an interactive scale developed by our colleagues at Stanford University and McREL for their NanoLeap project. Use this scale to examine the size for a variety of objects - http://www.mcrel.org/NanoLeap/multimedia/Nanosize_me.swf .

Other useful resources to help understand size and scale include: