Nanotechnology: Unleashing the Power of the Small to Bring Big Benefits


Nanotechnology is a field of science and technology that deals with creating materials and devices on an atomic or molecular level. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, which means it’s 10 times smaller than the diameter of a hydrogen atom. At this small size, the properties of materials are different than they are at larger sizes. For example, something like carbon nanotubes can be 100 times stronger than steel but 6 times lighter.

What Is Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the use of technology to control matter on a very small scale, ranging from one nanometer to 100 nanometers. This kind of manipulation can create structures, devices, and systems with unique characteristics and properties that are not found elsewhere. It involves imaging, modeling, measuring, designing, characterizing, and producing these structures at the nano-level.

Nanotechnology is a type of technology that focuses on the study and control of materials and phenomena at length scales below 100 nanometers, which are very tiny compared to the width of an average human hair (50,000 to 100,000 nanometers).

Zero-dimensional (0D) nanomaterials have all dimensions measured within the nanoscale range; two-dimensional (2D) nanomaterials have two dimensions outside the scale; and three-dimensional (3D) materials include bulk powders, nanoparticle dispersions, bundles of nanowires, multi-nanolayers and even nanotubes. For more information about this technology please see our Frequently Asked Questions.

Nanotechnology has been defined in a few different ways, but many require that it involve molecular nanotechnology and “functional systems”. A survey of 13 researchers showed a wide range of opinions about what nanotechnology is.

To be considered part of nanotechnology, particles, and materials must be synthesized by humans – not naturally occurring. Otherwise, much of chemistry and molecular biology would fall under the definition of nanotech.

Uses of Nano Technology

Nanoengineering is a branch of engineering that focuses on designing, constructing, and using machines, engines, and structures at the nanoscale. It involves nanostructuring, nanopatterning, and 3D printing to create useful materials, structures, and devices.

Nanotech can enhance existing industrial processes, materials, and applications by shrinking them down to the nanoscale where unique quantum and surface phenomena can be fully utilized while lowering costs. This allows companies to make smaller components with better performance than before.

Nanotechnology is being used in a variety of industries, including semiconductors, medicine, environmental remediation, water filtration, nanoelectronics, food and agriculture, cosmetics, energy and batteries, space and aeronautics, automotive industries, displays, and sports equipment.

For example, devices like smartphones and smartwatches contain billions of tiny transistors all on one computer chip that is the size of a fingernail. Nanotechnology can be used for many purposes such as coating surfaces with protective layers or creating sensors.

Products we use every day can be considered ‘nanotechnology products’ if they contain nanoparticles. Examples include antimicrobial coatings, food, and cosmetics. Even materials like carbon nanotubes or -fibers can be used to strengthen composite materials.

Nanobiotechnology applies nanotechnology to biological fields, while nanorobotics focuses on robotics at a nano-scale, though this should not be confused with science fiction versions of robots on a nano level.

Nanotechnology in the Medical and Healthcare Fields

Nanomedicine is a branch of healthcare that utilizes nanotechnologies to diagnose, monitor, treat, and even prevent diseases. It has advanced treatments in multiple areas such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, musculoskeletal conditions, mental health conditions, and infections. The use of nanotechnology also helps with imaging techniques and other diagnostic tools, drug delivery systems, tissue engineering implants, and pharmaceutical therapeutics.

What are the types of nanoparticles?

Several types of nanoparticles and nanomaterials have been studied and approved for medical use. Common examples include:

Quantum dots

Quantum dots (QDs) are nanocrystals, measuring between 1-100 nm, that have fluorescent properties. They consist of a core made up of elements from the II-VI or III-V groups of the periodic table, making them highly bright and stable. These characteristics make QDs a potential tool for drug delivery and cellular imaging in the medical field.


Micelles are molecules made of lipids and amphiphilic molecules that form spherical vesicles in water. They measure between 10-100 nanometers in diameter. Micelles have many uses, such as increasing the solubility of hydrophobic drugs to improve bioavailability and acting as drug delivery agents, imaging agents, contrast agents, and therapeutic agents.

Metallic nanoparticles

Metallic nanoparticles are widely used in many applications such as imaging, laser treatment, optical biosensing, and drug delivery. Iron oxide nanoparticles contain a magnetic core (4-5nm) and a hydrophilic polymer like dextran or PEG (17-20nm). Gold nanoparticles on the other hand consist of a gold atom core with negative reactive groups on its surface which can be further functionalized by adding ligands to target specific activities (17-20nm).


Liposomes are small, spherical particles made of lipid layers ranging from 30 nm to several microns in size. They can be modified with polymers, antibodies, and/or proteins to hold macromolecular drugs such as nucleic acids or metals. PEGylated liposomal doxorubicin (Doxil®) was the first nanomedicine approved by the FDA, which is used to treat breast cancer and increases the concentration of effective drug in malignant effusions without needing a higher dose.

Carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are molecules made up of thin layers of carbon atoms (graphene) rolled into tubes. These tubes can either be single-walled or multi-walled. These structures have a high surface area, making them effective drug carriers. Moreover, their special optical, mechanical, and electronic properties make them useful for imaging contrast agents and biological sensors.


Dendrimers are macromolecules with a central core and repeating branches which each have different functional groups. These groups can be used to modify the structure and physical properties, making them highly bioavailable and biodegradable. When combined with saccharides or peptides, they have increased antimicrobial, anti-prion, and antiviral powers.

Additionally, they can be used as gene delivery vectors (called dendriplexes), transporting drugs more efficiently. As particulate systems for biomedical applications such as imaging and drug delivery, dendrimers show great potential due to their easy transformation capabilities.

How can nanorobots be utilized?

The biggest advantage of using robots at the nanometer level is that they can work together in large numbers. A single tiny robot may not have much impact, but a million of them could potentially move something as large as the Golden Gate Bridge.

The most precise drug delivery systems.

Nanotechnology has the potential to provide an effective and safe solution for the delivery of drugs, vaccines, and biomaterials. For example, microneedle patches could deliver a dry vaccine that dissolves on the skin within minutes of application, rather than requiring injections. Nanoparticles are being developed that can deliver insulin to treat chronic diseases such as diabetes, whilst neurostimulators can be implanted in order to direct regeneration within the central nervous system for neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Nanotechnology offers the best chance of successfully treating cancer.

Cancer occurs when cells keep multiplying without dying, and current treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy are effective but have dramatic side effects. Nanotechnology presents a potential revolution in cancer treatment, with drugs that target cancer cells without harming other tissues. Swedish researchers have developed a technique involving magnetically controlled nanoparticles to destroy tumors while avoiding surrounding tissue damage associated with radiation and chemotherapy. This same technology is also being explored to treat other diseases like type 1 diabetes.

Nanoparticles can be used to manage and carry out medical surgeries.

Nanodevices can be programmed to collect information about certain parts of the body, toxins, and other substances. In the future, nanorobots could potentially send alerts to smartphones if glucose levels are high and insulin needs to be taken. Nanoparticles may scan the body with MRI imaging in order to detect diseases.

There are also nanodevices that could bring certain substances to cells or inject them into the bloodstream in order to eliminate damaged cells and grow new ones. Nanosponges can be circulated through the bloodstream in order to absorb and remove toxins. John Hopkins University has even created robots about 1 millimeter wide that can take biopsies inside of a patient’s colon. These robots may soon perform surgeries within a person’s colon as well.

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Questions About the Risk of Nanotechnology

Non-governmental organizations are urging for a closer assessment of risks associated with nanotechnology and, in the case of Canada’s ETC Group, even a halt to nanotech research. Organizations such as the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology in the US have expressed worries over certain aspects of nanotechnology.

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  • The toxicity of a material in its bulk form does not necessarily tell us anything about the toxicity of its nanoparticles.
  • Nanoparticles are able to stay and build up in the environment.
  • The pollutants could build up in the food chain.
  • The effects on human health could be unexpected.
  • The general public has not been given enough of an opportunity to discuss the applications, uses, and rules surrounding nanotechnology.
  • Nanotechnology could create tiny robots that are capable of reproducing themselves, known as “Grey Goo”.
  • If wealthy nations lead the development of nanotechnology, applications that are beneficial to poorer countries may not be prioritized.
  • Unless swift steps are taken, research into nanotechnology could advance faster than systems can be put in place to control its applications and their uses.

Final Thoughts

The medical community and the public need to become more familiar with nanotechnology in order to prepare for the future. There should be a discussion about the ethical implications and philosophical questions associated with nanobots. In order to assess risks appropriately and ensure that nanotechnology is used responsibly, groups of bioethicists should be formed to help decision-makers regulate its use in medicine for the benefit of all.

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