Nanotechnology - Frequently Asked Questions


1. What is nanotechnology?

The definition most frequently used by government and industry involves structures, devices, and systems having novel properties and functions due to the arrangement of their atoms on the 1 to 100 nanometer scale.

Many fields of endeavor contribute to nanotechnology, including molecular physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

Due to the extreme breadth and generality of this definition, many prefer to use the term "nanotechnologies." For clarity, it is also useful to differentiate between near-term and long-term prospects, or to segment the field into first-generation through fourth-generation stages.

2. Why develop nanotechnology?

Gaining better control over the structure of matter has been a primary project of our species since we started chipping flint. The quality of all human-made goods depends on the arrangement of their atoms. The cost of our products depends on how difficult it is for us to get the atoms and molecules to connect up the way we want them. The amount of energy used - and pollution created - depends on the methods we use to place and connect the molecules into a given product. The goal of nanotechnology is to improve our control over how we build things, so that our products can be of the highest quality and while causing the lowest environmental impact. Nanotech is even expected to help us heal the damage our past cruder and dirtier technologies have caused to the biosphere.

Nanotechnology has been identified as essential in solving many of the problems facing humanity. Specifically, it is the key to addressing the Foresight Nanotech Challenges:

1. Meeting global energy needs with clean solutions
2. Providing abundant clean water globally
3. Increasing the health and longevity of human life
4. Maximizing the productivity of agriculture
5. Making powerful information technology available everywhere
6. Enabling the development of space

3. How can nanotechnology promise to build products with both extreme precision in structure, and environmental cleanliness in the production process?

Traditional manufacturing builds in a "top down" fashion, taking a chunk of material and removing chunks of it - for example, by grinding, or by dissolving with acids - until the final product part is achieved. The goal of nanotechnology is to instead build in a "bottom-up" fashion, starting with individual molecules and bringing them together to form product parts in which every atom is in a precise, designed location. In comparison with the top-down approach, this method could potentially have much less material left over, greatly reducing pollution.

In practice, both top-down and bottom-up methods are useful and being actively pursued at the nanoscale. However, the ultimate goal of building products with atomic precision will require a bottom-up approach.

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4. How is nanotech different from biotech?

Based on the definition of nanotech given above, biotech can be thought of as a subset of nanotech - "nature's nanotechnology." Biotech uses the molecular structures, devices, and systems found in plants and animals to create new molecular products. Nanotech is more general, not being limited to existing natural structures, devices, and systems, and instead designing and building new, non-biological ones. These can be quite different: harder, stronger, tougher, and able to survive a dry or hot environment, unlike biology. For example, nanotech products can be used to build an automobile or spacecraft.

5. Where is nanotechnology being developed?

Research and development of nanotechnology is taking place worldwide. As this is written, government spending is at approximately one billion U.S. dollars in each of four global areas: (1) the United States, (2) Europe, (3) Japan, and (4) the rest of the world, including China, Israel, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and India. Similar amounts are said to be being spent in the private sector, with these figures being quite difficult to determine accurately due to the breadth of the nanotech definition, which includes a large number of older technologies.

6. Which country leads in nanotechnology?

World leadership in nanotechnology varies according to which sub-category of technology is being examined. In general, nanotechnology is unlike a number of recent major technological innovations in that the U.S. does not hold a very strong lead at the start. High quality work is taking place around the world, including countries with a higher fraction of engineering graduates, much lower R&D costs, and (unfortunately) less-stringent environmental standards.

7. What results can be expected in the near-term? The mid-term? The long-term?

Nanotech's development can usefully be divided into stages, for example:

1st generation: Passive nanostructures
2nd generation: Active nanostructures
3rd generation: Three-dimensional nanosystems with heterogeneous nanocomponents
4th generation: Heterogeneous molecular nanosystems, where each molecule in the nanosystem has a specific structure and plays a different role
As this is written, 1st generation products are commercially available, 2nd generation work is taking place in the laboratory, and later generations are at the computational experiment and modeling stage.

Examples of 1st through 3rd generation work can be found on the NNI website FAQ. The 4th and later generations will include highly advanced developments such as molecular manufacturing (also termed productive molecular machine systems) and molecular nanorobotic systems, including those for use in nanosurgery inside cells, at the molecular level. See the Molecular Manufacturing FAQ for more on this stage of nanotechnology.

8. Are there any safety or environmental issues with the nanotechnologies in use today?

Concerns have been raised regarding potential health and environmental effects of the passive nanostructures termed "nanoparticles." Regulatory agencies and standards bodies are beginning to look at these issues, though significantly more funding for these efforts is required. Foresight is working with the International Council on Nanotechnology to address these concerns.

9. How can I study nanotechnology at school, and how can I move my career in the direction of nanotechnology?

Please see the separate Nanotechnology Education FAQ and Nanotechnology Career FAQ on this site.

10. What is Foresight's role in nanotechnology?

As the leading public interest organization in nanotechnology since its founding in 1986, Foresight seeks to promote beneficial nanotechnology, focusing on six key areas - the Foresight Nanotech Challenges:

1. Meeting global energy needs with clean solutions
2. Providing abundant clean water globally
3. Increasing the health and longevity of human life
4. Maximizing the productivity of agriculture
5. Making powerful information technology available everywhere
6. Enabling the development of space

Foresight concerns itself with policy development and education on societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology, including both advancing positive applications and attempting to minimize potential downsides to the technology.

11. How can I participate in or influence the nanotech revolution?

First, you may want to explore the rest of this website for further perspectives and newer information. Track the news and join the discussion on the Nanodot weblog. Try to attend the annual Foresight Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology.

Finally, consider joining Foresight as a participating member, interact online, and if possible, attend the Foresight Vision Weekend. You won't find a group anywhere who has thought more about these issues and can give you better guidance on how to participate. We at Foresight look forward to hearing your views and helping you get involved. Welcome!