What is nanotechnology and how did it start?


Dreams and the fertile human imagination often give birth to completely new sciences and technologies. From within these dreams, nanotechnology has been where science fiction meets reality. What is nano? What is nanotechnology? How did you start? Where are you going today in the 21st century?

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What is nano?

Before we start talking about nanotechnology, let’s take a look at the concept of nanotechnology. The prefix “nano” is derived from the ancient Greek word “nanos” which means dwarf. Today it is used worldwide as an operator meaning prefix of the form (9-)^10. And if you compare the word nano with the word meter, you will bring the term nanometer, which designates a unit of spatial measurement equal to part of a billionth of a meter or (a unit of measurement).

The concept of nanometer was first proposed by Richard Adolf Zsigmondy, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1925, to describe particle size.

Richard Adolf Zigmondi
Richard Adolf Zigmondi

To help you imagine nanometers, we review the following example:

Suppose we cut a meter into 100 equal pieces. Each piece will measure one centimeter. It’s the size of a sugar cube. If we cut a centimeter into 100 equal pieces, then each piece will be a millimeter. The grain of sand varies in size from 0.1 mm to 2 mm. Objects as small as one millimeter can be seen with the naked eye, but when an object’s dimensions are less than one millimeter, it can be difficult to tell them apart.

If we cut a millimeter into 100 equal pieces, each piece will be one micrometer long. The diameter of the hair is 40-50 micrometers. Normally, objects at this scale cannot be seen with our eyes, but can be viewed with a magnifying glass or an optical microscope.

If we cut a micrometer into a thousand equal pieces, each piece will be nanometers long! And when things are so small, we cannot see them with our eyes or with an optical microscope. And those little things require a special tool for imaging. DNA measures 2 nanometers and atoms are smaller than one nanometer. An atom measures approximately 0.1 to 0.3 nanometers in diameter, depending on the type of element.

Illustration of nanoscale versus material volumes
Illustration of nanoscale versus material volumes

What is nanotechnology?

Defined as any technology performed on materials at the nanoscale, it is science, engineering and technology that is performed on a scale of 1 to 100 nanometers. It makes it possible to understand materials and control their properties at the atomic and nuclear levels to plan new elements that produce new phenomena for new applications. Materials modified at the nanometric scale have totally unique and unprecedented properties (physical, optical, thermal, mechanical, electrical, electronic, etc.).

Nanocomponents are divided into structures according to their dimensions as follows:

  • Nanoclusters: structures ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers in each spatial dimension. These structures are classified as 0D nanostructures.
  • Nanotubes and nanowires: have a diameter between 1 and 100 nanometers and a length which can be much greater. These structures are classified as one-dimensional 1D nanostructures.
  • Nanotextured surfaces or thin films: thicknesses range from 1 to 100 nanometers, while the other two dimensions are much larger. These structures are classified as 2D nanostructures.
  • Finally, bulk materials: those with three dimensions greater than 100 nanometers thicker than the structures above are called 3D nanostructures.
Types of nanostructures according to their dimensions.
Types of nanostructures according to their dimensions.

What is the importance of nanotechnology today?

Nanotechnology teaches us to understand the world we live in and allows us to do some interesting things when we go down to the nanoscale.

Nanoscience and its technologies can help reshape the world around us. Knowing that everything around us is made up of atoms (food, clothes, buildings and our bodies) arranged in a specific way to perform specific functions, we can also, using nanoscience and technology, manipulate and rearrange parts in different materials to produce specific designs that perform specific functions.

An important issue to consider is that the properties of things change as they get smaller. Thus, when matter is manipulated and rearranged at the nanoscale, scientists will be able to refine the properties of the material.

History of nanotechnology

About half a century ago, nanotechnology was nothing more than science fiction, then in 1959 physicist Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics, presented at a meeting from the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) a conference on the concept of manipulation and control of matter at the atomic level. . Feynman thus created a new way of thinking, and the journey to validate his assumptions has since begun. For this reason, he is considered the first founder of nanotechnology.

Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

More than a decade later, Professor Norio Taniguchi coined the term nanotechnology.

Norio Taniguchi
Norio Taniguchi

However, the golden age of nanotechnology did not begin until 1981, when a scanning tunneling microscope was developed and used, which allowed us to see individual atoms. The beginning of the 21st century has seen increased interest in the emerging fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology. In the United States, former President Bill Clinton called for funding for research into this emerging technology during a speech he gave at the California Institute of Technology on January 21, 2000.

AndThree years later, President George W. Bush signed the Nanotechnology Research and Development Act for the 21st Century. This act made nanotechnology research a national priority and created the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which It still stands today.

Present and future of nanotechnology

In nearly half a century, nanotechnology has become the basis for impressive industrial applications.


Nanotechnology affects everyone’s life and the potential benefits are many and varied. We see that it is involved in many sectors, such as:

  • Management and safety of the food, agro-food and cosmetics industries to improve production, shelf life, bioavailability, etc.
  • Environmental management and cleanup is one of the world’s largest and most pressing real-world issues. Nanotechnology will help protect the environment and climate by saving energy and water, reducing greenhouse gases and hazardous waste while increasing the durability of more sustainable materials and reducing the production of waste, and producing renewable and sustainable energy.
  • The digital technology sector is the main gateway to a smaller and more efficient digital world.
  • Health sectors are used today for prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Nanotechnology increases the efficiency of diagnostic medical imaging, making treatments more effective.
  • Today we see many attempts to develop drug delivery systems for many diseases, especially at the subatomic level. The encapsulation of the nanoparticles helps deliver the drug directly to cancer cells. It also reduces the risk of damage to healthy tissue, fundamentally changing the current approach to cancer treatments. It significantly reduces the toxic effects of chemotherapy.

In the future:

The emerging era of medicine is “nanomedicine” and exclusively the era of “nanobots” that can perform tasks in an automated manner. Nanobots have the ability to sense, tell friend from foe, and respond by delivering their drug payloads, all at the nanoscale.

Today’s nanotechnology exploits current advances in chemistry, physics, materials science and biotechnology to create new materials with unique properties due to their defined structures at the nanometer scale.

Scientific research into these and other ideas at the nanoscale has also led to some interesting innovations. However, nanotechnology is still at a very early stage of exploration, but it is developing rapidly. While the mechanisms of fighting subatomic diseases were science fiction for decades, today we are on the verge of making this idea a reality. Despite the complex nature of nanomaterials, the future of nanotechnology looks very bright.


Haick, PH (2013). Nanotechnology and Nanosensors
JE Hulla, SS (2015). Nanotechnology: history and future. Human and experimental toxicology, p. 42
Kohler, JM (2021). Challenges for nanotechnology. Encyclopedia
Sakharé, D. (2022). Applications of nanotechnology in science and technology

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