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What is nanotechnology?

During the Middle Ages, philosophers attempted to transmute basic materials into gold in a process called alchemy. Although his efforts were unsuccessful, the alchemy of pseudoscience paved the way to the real science of chemistry. Through chemistry, we learned more about the world around us, including the fact that all matter is made of atoms. The types of atoms and the way those atoms bond determines the properties of a substance.

Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary science that looks at how we can manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic level. To do this, we must work at the nanoscale , a scale so small that we can’t see it with a light microscope. In fact, a nanometer is only one billionth of a meter in size. Atoms are even smaller. It is difficult to quantify the size of an atom, they do not tend to have a particular shape. But, in general, a typical atom is about a tenth of a nanometer in diameter.

But the nanoscale is where it’s at. That’s because it’s the scale of molecules. By manipulating molecules, we can make all sorts of interesting materials. But like the alchemists of old, we wouldn’t make much headway in creating gold. That’s because gold is a basic element , it can’t be broken down into a simpler form.

However, we could make other interesting substances. By manipulating molecules so that they form into particular shapes, we can build materials with amazing properties. An example is a carbon nanotube. To create a carbon nanotube, you start with a sheet of graphite molecules, which you roll into a tube. The orientation of the molecules determines the properties of the nanotube. For example, you could end up with a conductor or a semiconductor. Rolled up the right way, the carbon nanotube will be hundreds of times stronger than steel, but only one-sixth the weight [source: NASA].

That’s just one aspect of nanotechnology. Another is that materials are not the same at the nanoscale as they are at larger scales. Researchers at the US Department of Energy discovered in 2005 that gold glows differently at the nanoscale than it does in bulk. They also noted that the materials possess different magnetic and temperature properties at the nanoscale [source: US Department of Energy]. USA].

Because science deals with the building blocks of matter, there are countless applications. Some seem almost mundane: The zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreen allow you to spread a clear lotion on your skin and stay protected. Others sound like science fiction: Doctors are trying to use the protein envelopes of viruses to deliver minute amounts of drugs to treat cancer. As we learn more about how molecules work and how to manipulate them, we will change the world. The biggest revelations will come from the smallest sources.

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