Nano-science: Increasing use in everyday applications

In some conversations today you hear a term called ”nanotechnology”. Also casually translated as a dense technology on a very small scale. But allot of people nowadays aren’t aware that this technology is already on the current market. Let alone that it’s listed in more than 2000 commercially available consumer products.  In this article we’re looking at the 101 on nano-science and answering questions such as: what scientist mean by the term”nano”, what kind of average home products have this technology and why is this specialized science branch important for future adaptations on products and appliances.

When we pick up a dictionary like for example Oxford Dictionary the explanation is very general:

The branch of technology that deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nano-meters, especially the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules.


So we start by explaining what the field at nano-science revolves around. Nano-science or nanotechnology involves the ability to see, understand, manipulate, mix and control individual atoms and molecules, at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nano-meters in a useful way. This new broad science can be used across other diverse scientific fields, such as physics, engineering, chemistry, material science and biology. Nano-scientists have tools like specialized microscopes  in order to measure, image, model and manipulate the matter.

For starters atoms and molecules are the building blocks of the matter you see in the world. Which means that everything you see on planet earth is made up of atoms, such as the plants we see, the cars we drive, the houses and our own body. One atom alone can’t be seen by the naked eye, because this matter can have a dimension of about 1 to 100 nano-meters in size. To put this in perspective an average human hair has a thickness around 80.000 and 100 000 nano-meters. The prefix ‘nano’ means a billionth of a meter (10-9). Here are other examples of how small a nano-meter is:

  • In one inch there are 24.400.000 nano-meters.
  • Your fingernail grows one nano-meter per second.
  • A strand of human DNA is 2,5 nano-meters in diameter.
  • If the diameter of Earth was one meter, then the diameter of a marble would be about one nano-meter.
  • Not only are nano-materials minuscule they come also in their individual shapes, such as particles, tubes, wires, films, flakes or shells.

Nano-materials under the STM. They vary in shapes

It all started with physicist Richard Feynman, who gave a lecture in 1959 at California Institute of Technology, called ”There’s plenty room at the bottom”, in which he described a process were scientist would be able to manipulate and control individual molecules and atoms. In 1981 Feymans exploration became true with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). You could now ”see” individual atoms. With the help from the invention of the right tools, like the STM and AFM (Atome Force microscope) scientists could step into the modern nanotechnology, that we know today. Only with these powerful specialized microscopes nano particles can be seen.

Microscopes are being used and it revolves around the thought that nano-materials have a bigger surface, because the surface area per mass increases. For example if you have two same sized cubicles. One is one whole piece and another is made out of ten cubicles. The surface volume area of the last named cubical is bigger, than the first one.

Because researchers have a larger surface area to work with, a greater amount of atoms or molecules can come in contact with other surrounding matter. As a result of that the matter is more chemically reactive and scientists of different fields take advantage of their enhanced properties, such as lighter weight, better strength and color control. This gives them more possibilities to construct and image new processes, alter their size, chance the internal structure of the compound or organize matter at the nano scale.

Nano-materials are not created by humans, but occurs in nature: volcanic ash, sea foam, photosynthesis with plants and smoke from a fire. Over millennia these  natural processes are nearly perfected. Others occurs as a byproduct like exhausting fumes and smoke of manufactures and automobiles. When we take a look at in which products nanotechnology or nano science plays a role, there’s a long list. Because our current market has products and applications that are relied or advanced by nano-science. It is estimated that 60 billion dollar worth of products were sold in 2007 with nano-science and this number will rise.  We give you a couple of examples below:

scanning tunneling microscope nanotechnology

Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM)


First, tennis rackets and bicycle frames are lighter and stronger with the help from carbon nano-tubes. And in order to block UV radiation during your outdoor activities sunscreens have particles of titanium dioxide and zicoxide of nano size in order to block rays more efficiently while giving you still that suntan. If you are getting a snack after sport, notice that nano-scale silver is being used for kitchen applies, the sink, refrigerator handles and other surfaces that need to be antimicrobial and prevents food from going bad.

Next, some clothing is nano engineered, these have coatings, making them static free and stain proof.And nano-scale components are a standard when we look at computer-chips. Meaning consumer electronic devices are enhanced or dependent on nano science. And in the solar power technology industry researchers are investigating nano systems in order to optimize electronic storage in a nonpolluting and inexpensive way. Drawing from the photosynthetic model, which occurs naturally in plants. Quantum mechanical processes set sunlight into energy with minimal waste in energy and heat.

On the other hand we have the medical branch, where researches are developing more personalized and precise tools, therapies and treatments on the natural nano scale side of biology. An example is a prostate cancer bio-marker following prostatectomy, developed at Northwestern University, which basically ”recognize” disease particle and DNA ”amplifiers” with the help from gold nano-particles. Bio-bar code assay detects these disease-specific bio-markers in the blood more efficiently than conventional treatments. On top of that it is relatively a more low cost method and considerably more sensitive for picking up the same molecule target, even if the sample is small.

In order to fabricate nano materials in a cost efficient reliable mass-productive way there’re nano-manufactures, which revolves around research and development of nano-materials. Here, properties and structures are being improved with processes like molecular beam epitaxy, dip pen lithography, self-assembly, atomic layer epitaxy, chemical vapor deposition and roll-to-roll processing.


Various fields that use Nano-science.


Next, there’re two main approaches for nano-manufacturing: on one hand you have the top-down processes, where a large piece is reduced to nano-scale materials. And on the other hand you have the bottom-up approach, which involves creating products by building with atoms and molecules. This is a more time consuming method, than the first mentioned. Manufactures in the nano-industry relies often on expensive facilities, personal and equipment. In the USA alone their is a budget for tens of millions of dollars. And it is predicted that in the next decade seven million jobs are being generated globally by nano-technology.

Organisations and groups are created to exchange knowledge and stimulate collaborations, like the NNN (National Nano fracturing Network) in USA. This is a community of government, academic and industry partners, that cooperate to advance nano-manufacturing. They have InterNano, this is a digital resource of up-to-date archive on nano-manufacturing information, tools, environmental health and safety, standards, events, processes and reports.

In the end is nano-technology still in rapid development in order to create lighter, durable energy efficient solar panels, better tasting durable and nutritional value in foods, increasing storage capacity in computer driven devices and lighter, more powerful and longer lasting batteries. It will nearly effect all products, materials and devices for everyday use.