The world’s smallest field of scientific study is getting bigger and bigger every day.

That’s right – we’re talking about nanotechnology (or nanoscience, to be more specific). This “world of tiny things” has been slowly entering the mainstream since it was first discovered just 30 years ago, and the applications are multiplying.

You can find nanotechnology embedded in everything from clothing and furniture to supercomputers. It’s likely you’ve heard about it… but what is it, exactly?!

Today we’ll shrink down to take a closer look at this emerging field. You’ll learn what nanotechnology is, why it’s important, and explore a few practical examples. Let’s start at the top!

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology refers to science conducted at the “nanoscale”, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers.

In other words, “Nanoscience” is the study of extremely tiny things – and “Nanotechnology” refers to all the technology (e.g. useful products) that results from that study.

And when we say extremely tiny, we mean it! A nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter (or 0.000000001 meters).

To help you understand just how small nanometers are, check out these facts:

  • There are 25.4 million nanometers in an inch.
  • A thin sheet of newspaper is approximately 100,000 nanometers thick.

That means pretty much everything being done at the nanoscale is completely invisible to the human eye – we need huge, powerful microscopes for that.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t see real results from this fascinating, relatively new field of study. The ability to manipulate individual atoms has many applications throughout all fields of science. Everything is made of atoms – and being able to change them individually means we can make things stronger, lighter, more efficient and overall better on a microscopic scale.

 

Who invented Nanotechnology?

Well, a better question is: Who discovered it?

That honor goes to Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist known for his work on the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics… the theory of quantum electrodynamics… the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium… and a bunch of other extremely complicated (but also: important) advancements in the field of physics.

Image source: Flickr

 

He piqued the world’s interest in small things with his famous talk, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, which he delivered at an American Physical Society meeting on December 29th, 1959.

In this talk, he theorized that future scientists would eventually be able to manipulate individual atoms and molecules – thus opening an entire new world of possibilities.

However, this was still theory. In fact, it wasn’t until 1974 that “nanotechnology” entered our lexicon, thanks to Norio Taniguchi, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science. Professor Taniguchi used the term to describe semiconductor processes, such as thin film deposition and ion beam milling exhibiting.

The first real application of nanotechnology came about 7 years later, in 1981. That’s when the scanning tunneling microscope was invented, which was finally able to “see” the microscopic atoms Feynman hoped we would one day be able to manipulate.

A scanning tunneling microscope. Image source: Flickr

 

How we use Nanotechnology today

Nanotechnology is rather unique. Even though it’s a specific field of study itself, nanoscience can be applied in pretty much every other scientific field – including chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and more.

That means there are tons of examples of nanotechnology, and more are arriving every day.

Here are a few interesting examples from recent years:

Sunscreen

Huh? That’s right – sunscreen uses nanotechnology to block UV radiation!

To accomplish this task, sunscreen uses two types of nanoparticles: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

These particles are exceptionally good at blocking UV rays. Not only that, they also feel much lighter on the skin. So, if you’ve noticed sunscreen becoming less “goopy” than it was decades ago… then you can thank nanoscience!

 

Kailo, a nanotechnology pain relief patch

A nanotech pain patch (Kailo).

Kailo is a new pain patch that uses nanotechnology in a fascinating way: to relieve pain without the use of drugs, and without causing side effects.

So, what’s the “secret ingredient”? Billions of tiny nanocapacitors are embedded in each patch. When placed near the source of the pain, these nanocapacitors communicate with the brain – helping it “turn down” pain signals in a whole new way.

Although we’re still discovering the full potential of these nanocapacitors, Kailo is an exciting new example of nanotechnology at work. It’s already helped thousands of people escape from pain in a non-invasive, non-addictive way!

Learn more about Kailo here.

 

Tennis balls (and other sports equipment)

Nanoscience has tons of applications in sports – but one example that stands out comes in tennis balls.

By manipulating nanoparticles in tennis balls, scientists can ensure they keep their bounce for longer (unless your dog gets ahold of it – sadly, nanoscience can’t help you there). It’s also useful in making rackets stronger and more “springy”.

Nanoscience has many applications in sports. Image source: https://www.nanowerk.com/spotlight/spotid=30661.php

 

Computers (duh)

Naturally, computers get a lot of use out of nanotechnology.

If you’ve noticed our devices becoming smaller and smaller (yet more and more capable), then guess what? You can thank nanoscience!

One standout example of nanotech applied to computers is the microprocessor. In fact, Intel recently announced a 10-nanometer processor chip. That’s about 1 billionth of a meter – impressive, no?

 

Medicine

Nanotech has endless uses for our health and wellbeing. Like everything else, our bodies are comprised of atoms. Manipulating them allows us to deliver drugs more effectively, perform more precise surgeries, and much more.

Take “smart pills” as just one example. These advanced pills can do all sorts of fascinating things – like control their own dosing, provide video footage, and even vibrate to activate faster.

These are just a few examples. Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, and we expect plenty more interesting uses to pop up in the near future!

 

What’s next for Nanotechnology?

The applications for nanoscience are nearly endless – and scientists around the world are discovering new methods every day.

While we can’t predict what groundbreaking discovery will come out of this emerging field, we know one thing for sure… for something so small, it’s already had a HUGE impact on the world.

 

Now it’s your turn! Are you familiar with any interesting applications of nanotechnology? If you could change anything on the nanoscale – to make it stronger, lighter, more effective or simply better – what would you change? Let us know in the comments below!