October 9th being National Nanotechnology Day, we go back to some basics for a brief look into what nanoscience is, and why it is important.
Nanoscience is the science of the incredibly small — sizes that only the most high-tech of high-tech microscopes can see. It is one of the hottest topics in all of science, touching on physics, biology, chemistry, geology, materials science and engineering. By working in the world of the ultrasmall, scientists at Argonne and elsewhere are bringing big new things to our world. These include new green technologies, treatments for various diseases, energy technologies and more.
The term “nano” in nanoscience refers to a nanometer, one-billionth of a meter (1 meter = 3.3 feet). Just how small is that?
Let’s pretend you are in the world of “Alice in Wonderland” and stumble on a magic potion in a bottle marked DRINK ME. You take one sip and shrink by 1500 times. You are now a millimeter in size, the height of a small raindrop. Curious, you take another sip from the magic potion and shrink by a factor of a thousand. Being a micrometer in size now, you are about the size of the bacteria floating around in a raindrop. You take another sip and shrink another factor of a thousand. Having reached the nanometer size, you are now only 10 times larger than a single molecule of water, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. In a single raindrop, there are over 1 sextillion molecules of water. A sextillion is the number 1 followed by 21 zeroes!
Science at this ultrasmall scale is reaping many benefits for society because all materials are made of atoms and molecules. And the same atoms and molecules combined in different ways can yield an endless bounty of properties. They can be made to be softer or stronger, conduct heat or electricity better, reflect light differently, and so on.
At Argonne National Laboratory, the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) is one of five Department of Energy centers in the U.S. for nanoscience and technology. In a typical year, many hundreds of scientists travel to CNM from around the world to investigate the properties of materials at the scale of atoms and molecules. By advancing our understanding of materials, molecules and chemical processes at this scale, they are gaining ever deeper understanding of how properties emerge that can be put to practical use.
Armed with that knowledge, scientists are designing and building the next generation of materials and molecules. These are leading to sustainable green technologies, more efficient mass manufacturing, new drugs, treatment of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, improved battery materials, better electronic devices and more.
National Nanotechnology Day is an annual celebration, launched by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, to help raise awareness of nanotechnology, how it is currently used in products that enrich our daily lives, and the challenges and opportunities it holds for the future.