Nanotechnology is one of the most advanced technologies of today. It began as a describe research that is undertaken on very small scale at the level of nanometers. Gradually, it is the being used to describe engineering at the molecular level. It is the creation and utilization of devices and materials at the level of one billionth of a meter. In fact, nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary area where scientists and researchers are working over a broad range of academic fields from chemistry to biology, physics and engineering.
On the whole, we can define nanotechnology as, ‘the creation and utilization of materials, devices and systems at the level of atoms, molecules and supramolecular structures. The essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at these levels, to generate larger structures with basically new molecular organizations. These newly formed ‘nanostructures’ are the smallest human made objects, which display new physical, chemical and biological properties and phenomena. The aim of nanotechnology is learn to exploit these properties, and efficiently manufacture and utilize these structures.
The prefix ‘nano’, means one billionth parts. One nanometer (nm) is 1/1,000,000,000 of meter. Just ten hydrogen atoms in a line make up one nanometer. It is really very small indeed. Anything smaller than a nanometer in size is just a loose atom or small molecule floating in space as a little dilute speck of vapour. So nanostructures are not just smaller than anything we have made before, they are the smallest solid things it is possible to make. Also, the nanoscale is unique because it is the size scale where the known properties of materials like conductivity, hardness or melting point meet the more unique properties of the atom and molecule. The atom and the molecule have been the source of specialized disciplines in physics, chemistry, materials and medicine.
Semiconductor behaviour has provided the electronics engineer with remarkably productive developments. However, the behaviour of matter with dimensions larger than a molecule, but smaller than the feature sizes in today’s semiconductor devices, represents a frontier not explored due to its complexity. Further, tools were lacking that had had the capability to characterize the material and to evaluate the performance. Once the tools become available for understanding the nature of nanometer sized bits of meter, innovation and formation of new products become easier.
The goals and ultimate utility of nanotechnology are not different from those that have led innovation for decades. The main cause of innovation in society, in general, includes improved food, clothing, shelter, safety, transportation, communication, production, storage and transformation of energy, discovery and transformation of information, health medicine. These elements are the basis for improvement in human welfare and have been the driving force innovation with past technological revolutions. Nanotechnology aspires to these goals and is demonstrating significant progress toward achieving success with these efforts.
Probably, the most important technological advance in the later half of the 20th century was the advent of silicon electronics. The microchip and its revolutionary applications in computing, communications, consumer electronics and medicine were all enabled by the development of silicon technology. In 1950, television was black and white, small and limited, fuzzy and unreliable. There were less than ten computers in the entire world and there were no cellular phones, digital clocks, optical fibers or internet. All these advances came about directly because of microchips. Now it is estimated that within the next few years all the basic principles involved in making chips with need to be re-thought as we shift from microchips to nanochips. No doubt, refining current technologies will continue to move us forward for some time but there are obstacles in the not too distance future and it is certain that nanotechnology may provide a way past them.
Multiple events have supported a focus on nanotechnology-(i) successful historical trends and a projected end of this trend in the absence of new scientific principles, (ii) new research tools to explore a relatively unknown frontier, (iii) discovery of new phenomena with these tools, (iv) Recognition of related superior products designed by nature. (v) Advanced first-principle computational methods coupled with massive computational capabilities and (vi) Excitement over the possibility of new higher-performance products. These events have fired the imagination of a broad coalition of scientists. Engineers and business capitalists envisioning expanded technological horizons. Moreover, the estimate of the impact from advances emerging from nanotechnology developments over the next 15-20 years have been estimated by studies at the National Science Foundation is approximately $ 1 trillion.
The anticipated benefits from research in nanotechnology are the in electronics, materials- (i) traditional metallurgical research with alloys, ceramic and composites etc. (ii) Coatings, (iii) Catalyst and also biological materials, optical materials and self-assemble. Then energy, sensor and biological and medical opportunities are also upcoming beneficial fields. Some nano-inspired inventions are beginning to hit the market. First on the list of consumer nanogoods are smart materials such as coatings and laminates that block harmful ultra-violet radiation that can cause skin cancer. Bathroom and kitchen tiles that cannot get dirty since it is impossible for dirt and grit particles to cling to the coating as food not stick to Teflon pans. Nanotechnology also offers lots to the world of computing. Another display technology is digital paper. The idea behind the original digital paper was to create hand-held computers with ultra-sharp screens that could be held and read like a book.
But there were a number of problems with these early displays. Nanotechnology changes this, some new digital paper displays use the chemicals that are used in paper to create a paper like look and picture elements are listable so that once they are programmed to display a certain image without using additional power. Next generation cloth and clothing are also created. Materials almost totally resistant to stains and materials that combine the comfort of cotton or natural fibers with the strength and durability of synthetics like nylon are already hitting the market. Sports equipment is also not behind.
Carbon fiber and graphite composites are used in lightweight bikes and sailboats. Fiber glass and plastics have been used for better football and hockey pads. The last area where nanotechnology truly shines is in medicine. Home pregnancy tests have already seen improvements in ease of application, speed of results and overall accuracy since they have started employing nanoparticles. Some scientists hope to see tests for everything from anthrax to AIDS simple enough for self-application through the use of nanotechnology and products like braces and prosthetics are already targets of early nanotechnology ventures.
On the whole, while much of the promise of nanotechnology remains in the future, it is already coming into our lives through our houses, our computers, our games and even our bodies. The age of nanotechnology is truly upon us.