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NANO 101


what is a nano?

invisible machines!

promises and perils

nano 101

nano 101

how big is a nano?
invisible machines!
nanotechnology in our daily lives

how big is a nano?

how big is a nano?

A nano is one-billionth of something.

A nanosecond is one-billionth of a second.

A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

To get a sense of how small a nano actually is, consider this:

1 nanometer is to 1 meter
as a marble is to the Earth

how big is a nano

a sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick

size of a nano

If you put 10 million points in a straight line inside 1 cm, the space between each of those points is a nanometer.

how many nanos in a cm

Or draw a row of 25 million points in the space of 1 inch. The distance between each of those points is a nanometer.

how many nanometers in an inch

Nanos aren’t the smallest size
our scientists have named.

The nano sits near the middle of the small side of our current scale of numbers:

scale of numbers large and small

Since atoms and molecules are measured in billionths of meters, nanoscience can be thought of as atomic- and molecular-scale science.


invisible machines

Invisible machines?

Yes, see for yourself:

nanobot in the bloodstream

Nano-medicine: Nanoscientists are innovating nanobots like this one that are small enough to travel through the bloodstream and in and out of cells. They will be capable of delivering medicine, finding and killing cancer cells, monitoring, measuring, or clearing plaque from arteries. Image courtesy of Gordon College.

An atom-size robot inside your cells


Not all nanobots are man-made. This little protein is a naturally occurring nanobot capable of walking along a microscopically-small component of a human cell (a nanotube). In this illustration the protein has a green foot and a brown foot. The red and white dots are the atoms that make up the nanotube. Image © Kebes.

kinesin walking animated

Strolling down a nanotube. Here is our walking protein in action. He is walking along a microtubule, a biological component found in the cytoplasm of cells. He walks up and down the tubule all day and all night, carrying nano-substances into and out of cells. Nanoscientists are working to harness this capability for a variety of medical purposes. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

kinesin walking animated

How does a nanobot walk? Via naturally-occuring cellular ATP processes. Microtubules have a positive and negative end. Most protein nanobots (called kinesins) move toward the positive end — from the inside to the outside of most cells. Some (known as dyneins) move in the opposite direction — from the outside in. Enlarged view. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Atomically-small gears and motors


A nanomotor: These colored dots represent different classes of atoms. The movement of this nanomotor is caused by their chemical interactions. Image from Center for Responsible Technology.


SRG-III Parallel-Shaft Speed Reducer Gear

Molecular gear train: This the first molecular gear train ever designed. It was built with 15,342 atoms, making it the second largest nanomechanical device ever modeled in atomic detail as of 2013. Image from Center for Responsible Technology.
universal joint nanobot animated

A universal joint nanobot: Here, too, the dots you see are atoms. This was created by nanoscientist Mark Sims, Image courtesy of Nanorex.
nanobot in the bloodstream

Fullerene nano-gears: NASA is developing nanobots such as this gear device made of two fullerenes (a fullerene is a carbon-based nanotube, pictured below). The dots you see are atoms! The gear teeth are made of benzyne molecules that are attached to each nanotube. On one side of each nanotube is a positively charged atom, on the other, a negatively charged atom. The gears are driven by a laser that creates an electric field around the nanotube, which rotates due to the positive and negative polarity. Image courtesy of NASA.

Invisible to the eye, stronger than steel

nanobot in the bloodstream

A graphene nanotube: Also called a fullerene. The dots you see are carbon atoms. The lines are the bonds between them. The substance this particular carbon atomic bond creates is graphene, the strongest material ever discovered. This makes super-small nanotubes incredibly strong for their size. Image © Mstroeck.

nanobot in the bloodstream

A multi-walled nanotube: Nanotubes of varying sizes can be stacked for the purposes of creating even stronger nanotubes, or nanotubes with specialized functions. Image © Eric Wieser.

nanobot in the bloodstream

Inside a nanotube: Large enough for atoms and molecules — even entire nano-machines — to pass through. Image © Michael Ströck.

nanotechnology in daily life

nanotechnology in daily life


in daily life

There's more to nanotechnology than nanobots and nanogears. Nanoscientists are developing the making and use of nanoparticles, nanocrystals, nanocomposites, nanocoatings, nanowires, and other nanomaterials.

Here are some of the applications for nanoparticles alone:

applications of nanotechnology

Nanoparticles are about to revolutionize our lives in these many ways. Click to enlarge chart. Image from Rui Natário's Networks and Servers blog.

Classes and applications of other nanomaterials:




blending and layering atoms and molecules

A composite is some one thing made up of distinct parts (two or more other things).

Some composite parts are layered, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which is a composite of bread, peanut butter and jelly.

Some composite parts are blended, like a chocolate cake, which is a composite of flour, eggs, butter, sugar and coco.

Nanoscientists combine nanosubstances with existing substances to make new materials with new and often amazing properties:

Flexible phones and computer screens … Carbon nanotubes combine with polymers to produce thin, flexible electrode sheets great for bendable cell phones, elastic touch screens, and ultra-thin computer screens that roll up like a poster.

nokia flexible phone
Nokia's Twist phone
bends and twists thanks to a nanocomposite design. Image courtesy of Nokia Research Center.

Smart food packaging ... Scientists are developing new generations of food packaging with a variety of nanosubstances that can:

  1. detect and signal food spoilage (using nanosensors built into the packaging material)
  2. monitor and signal changes in temperature (using nanoparticles that cause the packaging to change color if the interior temperature rises above freezing, for example)
  3. prevent bacterial growth (using nanoparticles that kill bacteria and other microbes)
  4. prevent oxidation (using nanoparticles that eat up oxygen inside the container or nanomaterials that block oxygen from seeping into the container)
  5. keep food fresher longer (using nanosubstances that improve the food's enzyme stability and retard breakdown)
  6. be biodegradable (using nanoparticles that provide strength to biodegradable packaging material)

Better bone repair … A new nanocomposite made of inorganic nanofibers suspended in a gelatin matrix creates artificial bone material that helps grow new bone by increasing blood flow to bone cells.

New skin … A similar nanocomposite has produced skin-like tissue used for burns that require skin grafts. These nanocomposites promote cell growth.



making whole new types of matter

One of the more incredible wonders of the Nano Age is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology promises two remarkable abilities:

  1. The manufacturing of tiny (invisible) machines, atom by atom, the size of molecules, tinier than a cell (see nanobots).

  2. The manufacturing of everyday objects, molecule by molecule, with a desktop nanofactory (pictured here).

personal nanofactory

A desktop nanofactory: Still in development, this molecular manufacturing appliance will build physical things, molecule by molecule. Image © John Burch, Lizard Fire Studios,

like the one above will build complex structures by creating large molecular shapes using mechanochemistry and assembling them into a finished product. This finished product will come out of the nanofactory in the form of a block or brick that will open up like a pop-up book or inflate like an air mattress. If you're curious about nanofactories, here's a PDF titled Building a Nanofactory.

Nanofactories vs 3D printers Nanofactories are not the same as 3D printers, which fabricate objects from various kinds of plastic (and at a larger, industrial level, from metal and ceramic). The molecular assembly of nanofactories is very precise and works with atoms, not plastic, meaning they will be able to make virtually anything out of raw elements like silicon or carbon or copper. As of 2013, there are a number of 3D printers that have been successfully developed. Nanofactories are still in early stages of development. Here's an interesting article on nanotechnology and 3D printing.



changing the performance of existing matter

Nanoscientists make functional nanosubstances (atoms or molecules like graphene, for example) and paint them on a surface to create interesting and useful effects, such as:

Pollution-eating surfaces … Buildings and sidewalks can be treated with self-cleaning nano-coatings that eat up and decompose nearby air pollution and car exhaust.

Electricity-generating objects … Nano-size PV solar cells will soon be painted or sprayed onto curtains, rooftops, gadgets, or the body of a car, which then can make and deliver electricity, even without visible sunlight.

self-powered gadgets

Self-powered gadgets: Our cell phones will soon be powered by small bits of light or heat captured from the air. The secret: a coating of nano-solar-cells that delivers continuous power to the device.

Self-cleaning clothes
… Clothes maker Eddie Bauer sells a pair of khaki pants made of fabric coated with a nano-material that repels dirt and stains. The Japanese have designed socks that never get stinky.

coming soon

more nanotechnology in everyday life

Within our lifetime, many of us will benefit from these nanotechnology apps:

Indestructible motorcycle helmets and luggage using nanocomposite polymers

Scratch-resistant and self-cleaning eyeglasses using nanofilms

Water purifiers that remove everything from arsenic to viruses to nano-size poisons.

Nano-paper-towels that can absorb 20 times its weight in oil for oil spill cleanup.

Nanobot sensors that can detect, identify and neutralize harmful chemicals in the air and soil.

Semiconducting nanocrystals called quantum dots that can locate and identify certain types of cells or specific types of biological activities (such as the growth of cancer cells)

Self-driving cars, made possible by the exponential growth of motion sensors and robotics and innovations in nanotechnology.

Bionic ears, eyes and limbs using new advances in medical nanotechnology research.

Nanobot sensors that continually monitor the condition and performance of bridges, railroads, tunnels, and pavement over time.

nanotechnology dangers


promises and perils

perilous? really?
the potential good and the potential bad
the need for responsible progress 

nanotechnology dangers

Nano-scale technology is perilous because:

nanotechnology  hazards
  • it's growing rapidly — exponentially, in fact — faster than our understanding of its risks and consequences

  • some nanoparticle products have unintended effects that cannot be easily measured or controlled

  • as with any new technology, we never know the full dangers until after it has been developed and used

  • military applications of nanotechnology could lead to a horrendous arms race of invisible weaponry and surveillance devices

  • cheap, mass-scale molecular manufacturing — building everyday objects atom by atom — could set off economic upheavals locally and globally and collapse entire industries

  • nanotechnology will raise intense privacy issues since data can be gathered without anyone's knowledge

nanotechnology promises and perils

In agriculture, nanosensors will make it possible to constantly monitor crop health and productivity. Will these tiny nanosensors be embedded in the food once it goes to market? And if so, will they be harmful to ingest?
Certain nanoparticles have shown to improve the effectiveness of fertilizers. These nanoparticles may be toxic, and being nano-sized, could seep deep into the soil or travel great distances by wind.
Nanofibers are now being used to strengthen airplanes, car bumpers, tennis rackets and bridges. Some nanofibers behave like asbestos in the lungs, where the nanofibers can lodge if inhaled.
Silver nanoparticles are powerful anti-bacterial agents and are currently being used to reduce foot odor in socks. When bits of silver nanoparticles land in municipal waste water after the socks have been washed, they can destroy beneficial bacteria in the water system.
Bionic limbs using nanomaterials will provide nearly life-like arms and legs for amputees. Bionic enhancement could — and surely will — be used to gain unfair advantage in competitive sports.
Nanobot sensors will provide undetectable video surveillance to protect homes, buildings and businesses. These same nanobot sensors can be used as invisible spying tools that can be sent large distances to specific GPS locations.
Nanomedicine will most certainly increase the quality and length of human life. The quality of life on an already crowded planet may suffer due to more rapidy-rising population growth.
Brain-to-machine interfaces will allow thought control of physical objects or electronic devices as if they were part of the human body. Brain-to-machine technology could have disastrous implications in military applications that are misused or that fall into the wrong hands.
Nanofactories will enable us to manufacture any kind of material (even diamonds!) atom by atom with incredible precision. If diamonds or other rare or precious materials can be manufactured, the economies of countries who mine and sell these materials could be devastated.
Nanofactories will soon be able to mass-manufacture consumer products rapidly and inexpensively. This will inevitably result in the loss of manufacturing jobs and business.

responsible progress

Responsible progress has never been more essential than now. We have entered the Nano Age, and there's no turning back.

The prospects for responsible development and use of nanotechnology are surprisingly hopeful. There has never been more public debate about an emerging technology as there has been about nanotechnology.

All around the world, discussions are being held with a wide range of participation: scientists, inventors, governments, standards agencies, regulators, investors, corporations, insurance companies, lawyers, social scientists, parents, and health and safety experts are talking about how nanotechnology should be developed and regulated.

Up for discussion are a wide range of questions:

  • How can medical nanotechnologies help the most people in the most affordable way?

  • How should research funds be allocated?

  • How can personal and national security be maintained?

  • What kind of standards should be applied to the use and labeling of products containing nanomaterials that may (or are) toxic to people or the environment?

  • How can the need for regulation be balanced to avoid so much over-regulation that research funding is stifled?

  • If research and development of nanotechnology are driven by the wealthy countries of the world, what can be done to ensure that developing countries receive some of the benefits?

Responsible Nanotechnology Links and Resources:
Safe Nano
Foresight Institute
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Nanotechnology and Its Dangers
Understanding Nanotechnology

contact me

This page was created by Melanie Pahlmann, responsible progress advocate and solarpunk author. If you wish to send me a message, please use this address:

melanie at luratia dot com


Solarpunk is a nascent fiction genre, whose writers and artists dare to imagine better, positive futures. It is an answer to sci fi author Neal Stephenson’s call for “a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction.”

Learn more about my solarpunk novels and my solarpunk planet.