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About Nanotechnology

November 2003

Nanotechnology is a catchall term that has different interpretations in science, industry, and the media. In this Technology Map, nanotechnology is scientists' ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create small- and large-scale structures with fundamentally new molecular organization. Nanotechnology scales are in the vicinity of 0.1 nm to 100 nm, with 1 nanometer equaling one-billionth of a meter or 1/80 000 of the diameter of a human hair. This Technology Map looks at materials and systems whose structures and components exhibit novel and significantly improved (over larger-scale structures) physical, chemical, and biological properties, phenomena, and processes because of their nanoscale size. At nanoscale dimensions, materials and resulting structures can behave in ways that are not necessarily predictable from observing their behaviors at large-size scales. The most important behavioral changes do not derive from nanostructures' order-of-magnitude size reduction but from new phenomena that are intrinsic to or predominant in nanoscales, such as size confinement, predominance of interfacial phenomena, and quantum mechanics. When scientists eventually manage to control feature size, they will be able to enhance material properties and device functions beyond those that we currently know or even consider feasible. Dimensional reduction of structures leads to entities—including carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, thin films, DNA-based structures, laser emitters, and resonance tunneling transistors—with unique properties. Such new forms of materials and devices promise a revolutionary age for science and technology if scientists can discover, understand, and fully use the underlying principles.

How far we are from realizing practical benefits from nanotechnology depends on which aspect of the technology we consider. Nature applies nanotechnology daily to grow the multifunctional cells and tissues of plants and animals from a single biological cell, which contains programmable sequences of molecules. Nanotechnology already exists in its "untamed" natural form, and it already helps run our daily economy—for example, when we use quantum-based lasers to read compact discs and compact videodiscs. Some scientists believe that nanotechnology will have arrived when the first "universal assembling molecular machine"—a programmable molecular machine or assembler—can scale up production at frenetic rates in a few decades; others believe that nanotechnology is already here. For example, carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles are commercially available for the manufacture of specialty products such as antistatic compounds and transparent coatings. Early users of nanotechnology will be the military and chemical and materials companies. The biotechnology industry will use nanotechnology in a range of applications, including biosensors, diagnostic devices, drug-release systems, and tissue repair and regeneration. In addition, the electronic and computer industries, electromechanical-component developers, and the sensor industry will make good use of nanotechnology. The regional markets most likely to see the first commercial nanotechnology products are Japan, North America, and some European countries, including Germany, Switzerland, France, and the United Kingdom.

Nanotechnology is still in its infancy, but as the technology matures, the world will reach an era of technological revolutions. In the near term, not only will nanotechnology refine the development of existing technologies, but also it will bring new emerging and disruptive technologies to the marketplace. Venture capitalists will see opportunities to invest in new start-ups—not all of which will prosper. In the long term, according to populist hype, nanotechnology may eventually lead to a powerful and accelerated social revolution in which virtually all present industrial processes could become obsolete, as well as our contemporary concept of labor. The reality will be somewhat different, but without doubt nanotechnology will over time make an impact on our lives. Consumer goods could become plentiful, inexpensive, smart, and durable. The capabilities of medicine and space technology are likely to make a quantum leap. Some nanotechnologies are likely to prove to be very powerful military technologies. However, the application of stringent regulations at an early stage of the development of nanotechnology is likely to slow or inhibit its commercial expansion in some areas, and the practicalities and costs of developments will be prohibitive. Close attention to feasible and practical aspects of the technology is essential to form a realistic view of the future of nanotechnology.