What is... nanotechnology?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — November 15, 2022

When it comes to technology, some say bigger is better. But there’s another frontier in the realm of the super-tiny. Nanotechnology is the term for all the ways engineers can manipulate atoms and molecules on a scale way too small to be visible to the naked eye. To get an idea of how small, picture a single grain of talcum powder, a spec that averages a diameter of about 27,000 nanometers. Scientists believe nanotechnology could help create clean energy, improve medicine, and make electronic devices exponentially more powerful — and that’s just for starters. Though it’s an idea that is still in its infancy, nanotechnology is expected to be worth $60 billion by the end of the decade.

The a-ha moment

The idea of pushing engineering into the micro scale is generally credited to physicist Richard Feynman, who discussed the idea in a 1950s lecture. But it really took off in the 1980s, when author K. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. The book predicted that one day miniscule devices would be able to replicate themselves atom by atom, leading to a world teeming with useful micro-machines. (Or, more pessimistically, beset by a “gray goo” of swarming micro-Terminators.)

Illustration by Eric Chow

How it works 

Drexler’s claim was reinforced by the invention that decade of the scanning tunneling microscope, which could not only take images of individual atoms but move them one by one. Another encouraging step forward was the discovery of molecular structures like the buckyball and carbon nanotubes that utilized the kinds of structural geometries popularized by Buckminster Fuller, but 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. Assembled together, they could form workable machines. At this scale, matter exhibits properties that are very different from what we’re used to: opaque substances can become transparent, for instance, and inert ones highly reactive.

What it means for everyday life 

As nanotechnology became a buzzword in the 90s, all sorts of products were trotted out claiming to feature it, such as textiles treated with nanotubes to make them stain resistant or fuel additives that could improve engine efficiency by up to 5%. None of these products really involved the manipulation of matter at an atomic scale, however. 

How it might change the world 

Since we know that biology uses molecules to create other molecules, machines able to make copies of themselves must be at least conceptually possible. A tentative first step in this direction has been the successful creation of nanotube motors, which use electrical or chemical gradients to produce rotational motion on a microscopic scale. Commercial development of this idea could one day lead to surfaces that clean themselves and injectable machines that deliver medicine exactly where it’s needed inside the body. Someday, nanotechnology could even repair micro-scale tissue damage to reverse the effects of aging and create structures to pull greenhouse gasses from the air to fight global warming. In fact, nanotechnology experts believe that all sorts of transformative ideas are out there waiting to be found. You just need to look closely enough.


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