We hear the term nanotechnology on a regular basis in conjunction with reporting on new science and technology breakthroughs. But, what is nanotechnology? What sort of things is nanotechnology able to do right now and
what promise and peril might it hold for our future? Read on as we answer these questions in this week’s SciTech Watch.
Nanotechnology deals with technologies that use or are
involved with the very small. The prefix nano refers to 1 part in a billion. So when we say nanotechnology works on very small things we are speaking about things ranging in size from 1 to 100 billionths of a meter or 1 to 100 nanometers. Examples of items in this size range include the internal structures on computer chips whose size can in range of thousands of nanometers, to virus particles whose size range from 10 to 50 nanometers.
So what nanotechnologies are actually responsible for these advances? Most
have been achieved using nano-meter sized particles of various materials. Perhaps the most revolutionary of these are the family of molecules called fullerenes, they are also known as buckyballs, buckytubes, or nanotubes. Originally discovered in “ball” form, a fullerene buckyball (The term bucky comes from the shortened forename of
Buckminster Fuller whose geodesic domes used the same shaped supporting structures as buckyballs have) is composed of 60 carbon atoms bonded together to form a ball-shaped particle. When additional carbon atoms are added to the structure, the ball elongates into a tube, hence the name buckytube or nanotube. Although nanotubes have been shown to possess or create many enhancements to existing materials, the widespread use of nanotubes is limited by our current inability to produce them in large quantities and defined lengths.