National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the science and technology of small things – in particular things that are less than 100nm in size.  One nanometer is 10-9 meters or about 3 atoms long. For comparison, a human hair is about 60-80,000 nanometers wide. 

Scientists have discovered that materials at small dimensions—small particles, thin films, etc- can have significantly different properties than the same materials at larger scale.  There are thus endless possibilities for improved devices, structures, and materials if we can understand these differences, and learn how to control the assembly of small structures.

There are many different views of precisely what is included in nanotechnology. In general , however, most agree that three things are important:

  1. Small size, measured in 100s of nanometers or less
  2. Unique properties because of the small size
  3. Control the structure and composition on the nm scale in order to control the properties. 

Nanostructures--- objects with nanometer scale features--  are not new nor were they first created by man.  There are many examples of nanostructures in nature in the way that plants and animals have evolved. Similarly there are many natural nanoscale materials….. catalysts, porous materials, certain minerals, soot particles, etc  that have unique properties particularly because of the nanoscale features. What is new about nanotechnology is that we can now, at least partially, understand and control these structures and properties to make new functional materials and devices.  We have entered the era of engineered nanomaterials and devices.

One area of nanotechnology has been evolving for the last 40 years and  is the source of the great microelectronics revolution- the techniques of micro- and nano-lithography and etching. This is sometimes call “top-down” nanotechnology.   Here, small features are made by starting with larger materials and patterning and “carving down” to make nanoscale structure in precise patterns. Complex structures including microprocessors containing 100s of millions of precisely positioned nanostructures can be fabricated.  Of all forms of nanotechnology, this is the most well established. Production machines for these techniques can cost millions of dollars and a full scale microprocessor factory can cost one billion dollars.  In recent years, the same “top down” nanoprocessing techniques have enabled many  non-electronic applications, including micromechanical. microptical, and microfluidic devices.                                 

The other fundamentally different area of nanotechnology results from starting at the atomic scale and building up materials and structures , atom by atom.  It is essentially molecular engineering-  often called molecular or chemical nanotechnology.   Here we are using the forces of nature to assemble nanostructures – the term “self assembly” is often used.  Here, the forces of chemistry are in control and we have, at least to date, somewhat less flexibility in making arbitrary structures. The nanomaterials created this way ,however, have resulted in a number of consumer products. Significant advances are expected in the next decade in this area as we understand more completely the area of chemical nanotechnology.

And there are many exciting applications that combine both bottom up and top down processing- to create for example single molecule transistors that have  large (macroscopic) leads fabricated by top-down and  single molecule       assembled from bottom up.

Elsewhere on this site are highlighted some of the current applications of nanotechnology as well as those that we can reasonably forecast.

These materials have unique properties because of their small size.  At the nanoscale, properties of materials behave differently and are said to behave under atomic and molecular rules.  Researchers are using these unique properties of materials at this small scale to create new and exciting tools and products in all areas of science and engineering.

Nanotechnology combines solid state physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, biochemistry and biophysics, and materials science.  It is a highly interdisciplinary area – meaning that it involves ideas integrated from  many traditional discipline.  Some universities have begun to issue degrees in nanotechnology; others view it as a portion of existing academic areas.  Either way many trained scientists, engineers, and technicians in these areas will be required in the next 30 years.

The federal government believes that nanotechnology is one of the most important research endeavors for our country. In 2001 it established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as an umbrella organization to promote and organize nanotechnology research across the government.  Under NNI, ten federal agencies fund nanotechnology research with a current budget of approximately $1 billion per year.  An aggressive set of technology milestones and grand challenges have been set by NNI. In 2004, President Bush signed into law the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act which further promoted nanotechnology research.  Other countries around the world have followed with significant programs in Nanotechnology. 

This website is part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN). The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) which consists of  specialized nanotechnology laboratories at 13 universities across the nation was funded in 2004  by the National Science Foundation as part of the NNI program.  The NNIN provides researchers from across the nation with economical access to state-of-the art nanotechnology facilities.

Many are predicting that nanotechnology is the next technical revolution and products resulting from it will affect all areas of our economy and lifestyle. It is estimated that by 2015 this exciting field will need 7 million workers worldwide.  The workforce will come from all areas of science and engineering  and will include those with two-year technical degrees up to PhD researchers in universities and industry.

Lynn Rathbun, Cornell
Nancy Heally, Georgia Tech

June 2005