NSF Educational Video: What is Nanotechnology

World Technology Evaluation Center

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Hello and welcome to this National Science Foundation video on nanotechnology. In the next ten years some scientists hope to develop atoms or molecules that assemble themselves into microscopic structures, tissue engineering inside the human body to rebuild damaged spinal cord parts and other organs, improve long life batteries to drive electric vehicles long distances, develop more efficient and less expensive solar energy, better performing aircraft made out of stronger and lighter materials, and other inventions we can't even dream of today all because of the new science “nanotechnology”.

Science is all about studying our world and learning how it works; often scientists can use what they discover to make our lives better. Right now, a lot of scientists are really excited about the new science of nanotechnology, the study and control of atoms and molecules. Scientists study things that are nanoscale in size. That's another new word to learn. Nanoscale means that things are very very small, but how small? Well this dime it's pretty small, and if I could become small enough to dance on this dime, I would still be a whole lot larger than a nanoparticle. To get that small I would need to shrink down to fit inside the molecules that make up the dime. Things down here in nanoscale are measured in nanometers, but we don't need to be that tiny ourselves to study nanotechnology or to make it work for us. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Okay here is a different way to picture that; imagine you have strains that are all each one nanometer thick. Now imagine you take one hundred thousand of those one nanometer thick strings and bundle them together. The bundle would fit inside one strand of your hair. Uh... well, you can look at one of your hairs.

Scientists work with materials that are between one nanometer and one hundred nanometers in size. That's still amazingly small, but scientists don't just study nanomaterials because they're small, they want to make nanomaterials do useful work for us. That's possible because with ordinary materials get down to the nanometer scale they start to act differently. And each time the particle size changes the behavior changes again. That multiplies the number of uses we can get from each material that exists in the world. So instead of just discovering materials in nature, we can design them to have selected properties.

Researchers are studying these different properties of nanomaterials and looking for ways to use them: in biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, electronics, and many other sciences to make our lives better. Scientists predict that in the future nanotechnology could be used to help broken bones heal quicker, make faster and more powerful computers, build stronger buildings of new nanomaterials, extract pure water, energy and minerals from dirty water, clean up oil spills, and do many other amazing things that we can't even imagine yet.

Many scientists believe nanotechnology might help to solve a lot of the world's problems. For example, one problem is the need for more and more energy. The next forty years, scientists predict the world will need twice much energy as we use now. Some of our energy is produced by burning coal or oil, which has a limited supply and pollutes the environment. What if we could find a way to make energy that is abundant, low-cost, and good for the environment? Well, you might have learned in science class that plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into fuel in a process called photosynthesis. Now, what if we could do the same thing? Did you know that more energy from the sun strikes the earth in one hour than all of us can use in a whole year? Well that's what Dr. Jeff Brinker said at a recent nanotechnology conference: “Another area that’s gotten a lot of attention is photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is wonderful in that it converts the photo energy directly to fuel. It's a blueprint for sustainable energy but photosynthesis a system, and so the nanostructure analogs or the synthetic analogs have to be now systems of nanostructures” Dr. Brinker was at a nanotechnology conference in 2010 in Washington D.C., where researchers gathered together to talk about the progress they've made and what they hope to develop in the future. At the same conference, Dr. Mark Hersam talked about new high-performance nanomaterials: “If you look at advanced aerospace they are many places where nano is going to be emerging; one example will be in by the hydrophobic coatings of the airplane wings, thermal barrier coatings, and transparent electronics to be integrated into the windshield for displays.”

You could see how excited those scientists are about their work. That's because nanotechnology has created new opportunities for research and because nanotechnology is so new and there are so many applications to explore that there'll be a need for a lot of nanoscientists for many many years into the future. Nanotechnology - it's a small world with room for a lot of researchers. You might even decide to become one of the scientist explorers and discover great new nanotechnology applications that help people live better. All you need is curiosity, and of course, study in math and science. The nano world will be waiting for you.

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Material contained in this website is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant no. ENG-0844639 and other NSF awards. Other federal agencies contributing to WTEC reports include the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.