A particle travelling down a nanotube.

A particle travelling down a nanotube.

Understanding nanotechnology

Nanotechnologies have the potential to offer a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits.

  • 1 February 2011 | Updated 4 February 2013

Introduction

Page 1 of 9

Nanotechnologies are emerging fields that use extremely small particles, called nanomaterials, to produce new processes, devices and products for a variety of areas, including energy, health and water.

Nanomaterials are tiny substances that measure between 1–100 nanometres. A nanometre is equal to 10-9 of a metre, which is one billionth of a metre (or one millionth of a millimetre). As a guide to the relative size of nanomaterials, compare a human hair, which is roughly 80 000 nanometres wide, to a DNA molecule, which is about two nanometres wide.

The small size of nanomaterials means they have different properties than larger particles of the same substance.

The small size of nanomaterials means they have different properties than larger particles of the same substance; they may be more conductive, stronger, or more chemically reactive. It is these different properties that make nanomaterials useful.

Nanomaterials themselves are not new; they occur naturally in air, water and food. However, the ability to engineer nanomaterials is relatively new. Advances in scientific equipment and knowledge means scientists can now engineer nanomaterials and use their distinctive properties to improve existing processes and devices or create new ones.

There are a large range of products using nanomaterials that are available on the market. These include:

  • car wax that doesn't scratch your car
  • environmentally-friendly motor oil
  • stronger, lighter sporting equipment
  • remineralising toothpastes that repair your teeth and fight plaque
  • a coating for glass bottles that blocks out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that affect the flavour of beer
  • new paints and coating for houses, marine craft, and industrial surfaces
  • anti-stain clothes.

For further information, refer to our work on Understanding nanosafety.