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33. Nanotechnology - Nifty 50

Hippocampal neurons on silicon structure

Nanoscience and nanoengineering refer to the world as it works at the atomic and molecular level. This world is measured on a nanometer scale, from one to several hundred nanometers.

The prefix "nano" represents one-billionth of a unit. For example, a nanosecond is one-billionth of a second; a nanoliter is one-billionth of a liter. All living systems are governed by molecular processes at the nanoscale level.

Nanotechnology aims to use nanoscale processes to create human-made products by arranging the molecules of various shapes and surface features into patterns in order to obtain novel and useful features. These patterns then determine important materials properties such as electrical conductivity, optical properties and mechanical strength.

Nanosize devices

Also, very tiny electronic, medical, sensor and other high-performance devices with nanosize features could be produced for the first time. Researchers are now actually creating nanoscale building blocks, such as metallic and ceramic particles and all-carbon "nanotubes," that are hundreds of millions of times smaller than bricks used for houses and pipes used for plumbing.

Despite increasing attention, nanoscience and nanotechnology are largely in an exploratory phase. Researchers say nanotechnology stands now where television did in the 1930s and transistors in the 1950s.

Current uses

Yet some nanoengineered materials and nanoscale devices are already in commercial use for chemical, pharmaceutical and electronic applications and impact multibillion dollar production lines.

Some read computer data stored on CD-ROMs. Others are found inside cellular phones, pagers, medicines and replacement tissues and automobile tires; still others are part of lasers with accurate wavelengths, advanced chemicals, sensors, air bags and automobile engines.

NSF has been a pioneer in fostering the development of nanoscience and engineering, establishing an appropriate physical infrastructure and workforce needed to exploit the opportunities presented by nanotechnology.

NSF currently invests in a wide range of research activities, including five nanotechnology university-based research hubs with a focus on electronics, biology, advanced materials, optoelectronics and nanoscale computer simulation. U.S.A. government investment rose from $116 million to $255 million over the course of two years (fiscal years 1997 to 1999).

Original publication date: April 2000

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