The word nanotechnology is a combination of the two terms "nano" and "technology." From this alone, it is apparent that nanotechnology is an application of scientific concepts at the level of molecules and particles, the sizes of which fall within the range of 1 to 100 nanometers. In a nutshell, nanotechnology refers to functional engineering at the level of molecules. Specifically, it is the deliberate application of production processes and technology at the molecular level in the order to achieve a desired result, to manufacture materials and consumables with unique characteristics.
Applications of nanotechnology are wide-ranging and far-reaching since it enables humans to make useful products and devise efficient manufacturing processes in any field. As things stand, nanotechnology has made inroads in consumer products like computer mice, mats, storage bags and containers, air purifiers, wound dressings, golf clubs, sunscreen, protective and stain-resistant clothing, computer chips, and others.
Origin of the Term
Nanotechnology, the word, was first used in 1974 by a Japanese professor to refer to the process of material fabrication at the nanoscale or at the molecular level. The more popular definition of the word, however, was made by American engineer K. Eric Drexler (who was not aware of the earlier definition of the word) to refer to his conception of an "assembler machine" with the capability of replicating itself, and building ever larger and more complex items.
Over the years, however, the definition of nanotechnology has expanded. Its present application refers to any work done at the molecular level so it now covers a variety of technologies and scientific disciplines that are used to manufacture devices and materials at the nanoscale.
Nanoscale versus Macroscale
Molecular manipulation gained a following due to the distinct characteristics of matter at the nanoscale. It became apparent from scientific studies that matter can exhibit peculiarly different characteristics at the nanoscale. For instance, surface area-to-volume ratios are higher in the microscale than it is in the macroscale.
At the nanoscale, physical characteristics that are so weak or insignificant at the macro-level become more distinct and much more pronounced. To illustrate, copper which is opaque at the macroscale is actually transparent in the nanoscale. Another example is gold which is apparently liquid at the nanoscale whereas it is solid at the macroscale. There are a lot more such reversals when one moves from the macroscopic to the microscopic perspective.
This is one commonly used process of molecular manipulation, where molecules are arranged in a preset or pre-defined manner to come up with materials that would have unique characteristics. One application of this process can be seen at the manufacture of Metal Rubber – a material that has the conductive characteristics of metal but the elastic properties of rubber. In molecular self assembly, manufacturers or engineers supply the molecules of different materials and let them interact and bond naturally (as they would in nature) to form supramolecular materials. Assembly can be intermolecular (between and among different molecules) or intra-molecular (between and among molecular components).