Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometres. It’s hard to imagine just how small nanotechnology is. One nanometre is a billionth of a meter, or 10-9 of a meter.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve the ability to see and to control individual atoms and molecules. Everything on Earth is made up of atoms; the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the buildings and houses we live in, and our own bodies.

But something as small as an atom is impossible to see with the naked eye. In fact, it’s impossible to see with the microscopes typically used in a high school science classes. The microscopes needed to see things at the nanoscale were invented relatively recently, about 30 years ago. Once scientists had the right tools, such as the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM), the age of nanotechnology was born.

Although modern nanoscience and nanotechnology are quite new, nanoscale materials were used for centuries. Alternate-sized gold and silver particles created colours in the stained glass windows of medieval churches hundreds of years ago. The artists back then just didn’t know that the process they used to create these beautiful works of art actually led to changes in the composition of the materials they were working with.

Today’s scientists and engineers are finding a wide variety of ways to deliberately make materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of their enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than their larger-scale counterparts.

Nanoscale materials have far larger surface areas than similar masses of larger-scale materials. As surface area per mass of a material increases, a greater amount of the material can come into contact with surrounding materials, thus affecting reactivity.

One benefit of greater surface area and improved reactivity in nanostructured materials is that they have helped create better catalysts. As a result, catalysis by engineered nanostructured materials already impacts about one-third of the huge U.S. and global catalyst markets, affecting billions of dollars of revenue in the oil and chemical industries. An everyday example of catalysis is the catalytic converter in a car, which reduces the toxicity of the engine’s fumes. Nano-engineered batteries, fuel cells, and catalysts can potentially use enhanced reactivity at the nanoscale to produce cleaner, safer, and more affordable modes of producing and storing energy.


A simple thought experiment shows why nanoparticles have phenomenally high surface areas. A solid cube of a material 1 cm on a side has 6 square centimetres of surface area, about equal to one side of half a stick of gum. But if that volume of 1 cubic centimetre were filled with cubes 1 mm on a side, that would be 1,000 millimetre-sized cubes (10 x 10 x 10), each one of which has a surface area of 6 square millimetres, for a total surface area of 60 square centimetres; about the same as one side of two-thirds of a 3” x 5” note card. When the 1 cubic centimetre is filled with micrometre-sized cubes, a trillion (1012) of them, each with a surface area of 6 square micrometres, the total surface area amounts to 6 square meters, or about the area of the main bathroom in an average house. And when that single cubic centimetre of volume is filled with 1-nanometer-sized cubes, 1021 of them, each with an area of 6 square nanometres, their total surface area comes to 6,000 square meters. In other words, a single cubic centimetre of cubic nanoparticles has a total surface area one-third larger than a football field!


Large surface area also makes nanostructured membranes and materials ideal candidates for water treatment and desalination (e.g., see “Self-Assembled, Nanostructured Carbon for Energy Storage and Water Treatment” in our database, NNI Accomplishments Archive), among other uses. It also helps support “functionalization” of nanoscale material surfaces (adding particles for specific purposes), for applications ranging from drug delivery to clothing insulation.