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Introduction to Nanotechnology: Basic Concepts Explained

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Posted August 3, 2019

The nanotechnology is a very important field of science. But it is not an entirely new science. Did you know that some nanomaterials were used centuries ago? And still, many people today do not know what the nanotechnology is. But the basic concepts are really easy to grasp. So let’s explore more.

An AIH coated aluminum particles with rough surface having extruding nodules at 120,000 magnification. (U.S. Army photo/Public Domain

An AIH coated aluminum particles with rough surface having extruding nodules at 120,000 magnification. (U.S. Army photo/Public Domain via arl.army.mil)

What is nanoscale?

Nanotechnology mainly deals with materials at the nanoscale. Materials and devices are usually composed of carbon nanotubes, but some other types of materials are used too.

So how small is a nanoscale?

Nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter. This scale is already close to the size of individual atoms or molecules.

But do devices or structures have to be that small, to be called nanodevices or nanostructures? Actually, current materials science and industry allow for larger scale elements to be called ‘nanotech’. Anything in the range of 100 nanometers or less qualify for this definition too.

This is a very good image to illustrate how small the nanoscale is. For example, according to their size, nanotubes can be compared to DNA molecules, individual proteins, and antibodies. Small, isn't it? They are smaller than animal cells, bacteria, and even viruses. But still, not as small as individual atoms. You need at least several atoms to form a nanostructure, right? Image credit: Guillaume Paumier, Philip Ronan, NIH, Artur Jan Fijałkowski, Jerome Walker, Michael David Jones, Tyler Heal, Mariana Ruiz, Science Primer (National Center for Biotechnology Information), Liquid_2003, Arne Nordmann & The Tango! Desktop Project via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5

This is a very good image to illustrate how small the nanoscale is. For example, according to their size, nanotubes can be compared to DNA molecules, individual proteins, and antibodies. Small, isn’t it? They are smaller than animal cells, bacteria, and even viruses. Yet, not as small as individual atoms. You need at least several atoms to form a nanostructure, right? Image credit: Guillaume Paumier, Philip Ronan, NIH, Artur Jan Fijałkowski, Jerome Walker, Michael David Jones, Tyler Heal, Mariana Ruiz, Science Primer (National Center for Biotechnology Information), Liquid_2003, Arne Nordmann & The Tango! Desktop Project via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-2.5

What are the types of nanomaterials?

Carbon, of course, is the most popular of them all. You probably have heard about carbon nanotubes? A nanotube is a special shape formed by a group of atoms. This arrangement of particles ensures unique properties of matter. These unique properties include exceptional strength, flexibility, resistance, conductivity, just to name a few.

But not all nanotubes are made of carbon. Boron nitride, gallium nitride, silicon, or titania can also exist in a form of nanotubes. Technically, DNA molecule, the essence of life, is also a kind of nanotube.

Structure is important too

Such tiny tubes can have fundamentally different forms. There are single-walled, multi-walled nanotubes. In this situation, the number of walls is what matters. The lattice of atoms can form zigzag or so-called armchair configurations. They can differ in length, diameter, and some other physical parameters.

And certainly, nanotubes is not the only possible kind of structure for nanomaterials. There are also hollow spheres, ellipsoids, nanorods, nanoplates, nanoribbons. Such advanced materials may combine different phases of matter, like solid plus gas, or solid plus liquid. This way, nanofoams, nanocrystalline, nanoporous, or nanocomposite materials can be created.

This is the Atomic Force Microscope, one of the most advanced tools used in nano-scale imaging. Image credit: Misra.saurabh1 via Wikimedia, Public Domain

This is the Atomic Force Microscope, one of the most advanced tools used in nano-scale imaging. Image credit: Misra.saurabh1 via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Is it possible to see a nanostructure or a nanoparticle?

Short answer is – you can, but not with a naked eye. Humans cannot directly see things that are much larger than nanoparticles. Even particles that are thousands times larger still require special tools called microscopes in order to observe them.

Can you buy such microscope in a shop? Probably no. At least not in typical shops, because such precision equipment is manufactured by companies often highly specialized in nanoscience and nanotechnology. And the price of such microscopes is also measured on entirely different scales compared to our daily ‘consumer-grade’ tech.

In order to see particles at nanoscale, you need to have one of these: scanning electron microscope (SEM), transmission electron microscope (TEM), field ion microscope (FIM), or one or the most recent developments – scanning tunneling microscope (STM), or the atomic force microscope (AFM).

Can you smell or taste nanoparticles?

It’s a controversial question. Any material in bulk quantities can have taste or smell, the same way like all materials do. Unless it is something tasteless or odorless. But nanoparticles are and other nano-scale materials are already used in cosmetics or food industry.

For example, it is possible to enhance the scent of perfumes by adding some precise quantities of specially-developed nanoparticles. Special nanoencapsulation techniques can also be used to enhance different properties of food products, including our perception of taste – when we eat such food.

In this image you can see how the multiwalled carbon nanotube penetrates the alveolar epithelial lung cell. This study was done in mice, but it is logical to assume the same effects to be present in humans too. Image credit: Robert R. Mercer, Ann F. Hubbs, James F. Scabilloni, Liying Wang, Lori A. Battelli, Diane Schwegler-Berry, Vincent Castranova and Dale W. Porter / NIOSH via Wikimedia, Public Domain

In this image you can see how the multiwalled carbon nanotube penetrates the alveolar epithelial lung cell. This study was done in mice, but it is logical to assume the same effects to be present in humans too. Image credit: Robert R. Mercer, Ann F. Hubbs, James F. Scabilloni, Liying Wang, Lori A. Battelli, Diane Schwegler-Berry, Vincent Castranova and Dale W. Porter / NIOSH via Wikimedia, Public Domain

But – there are many uncertainties out there. The safety of nanoparticles has been and still is under lots of debates recently. Scientists need more time to prove or disapprove the safety of their application in different areas of our daily lives.

Summary

Hopefully these briefly listed facts have helped you to get a little broader perspective on basic concepts of nanotechnology. If you need more information added to this article or have suggestions how to improve this text, you can contact our team here at Technology.org at any time.

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