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What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is not simply about small particles, materials, or products. It is not one type of technology with a defined use. Rather, nanotechnology is an enabling technology that promises to contribute at many frontiers of science and technology. For purposes of federal R&D, nanotechnology is defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative as comprising the following three factors:1

  1. Research and technology development at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular levels, at a length scale of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, too small to be seen with a conventional laboratory microscope);

  2. Creation and use of structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate size, at the level of atoms and molecules;

  3. Ability for atomic-scale control or manipulation.

The National Institutes of Health has further clarified the definition of nanotechnology, given that much of biomedical R&D involves work at the level of submicron features.2,3 “Nanomedicine,” for example, refers to highly specific medical intervention at the molecular scale for treating disease or repairing damaged tissues, such as bone, muscle, or nerve. It is at this size scale—about 100 nanometers or less—that biological molecules and structures inside living cells operate.

Research in nanotechnology is based on discoveries in physics and chemistry that have led to essential understanding of the physical and chemical properties of materials at the level of molecules or complexes of molecules, and thus to the ability to manipulate those properties. Researchers have characterized the parts of cells in vivid detail and now know a great deal about how intracellular structures operate, for example, but still have not been able to answer questions basic to understanding how to build “nano” structures or “nano” machines that are compatible with living tissues. In this and other areas of application, nanotechnology as an enabler of significant breakthroughs and benefits is still very much a young and developing endeavor.


1See, accessed March 2006.


2See, accessed March 2006.


3National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). 2005. Nanobiotechnology: Report of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Workshop. Washington, D.C.: NSTC. August.

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