Nanotechnology Explained

IEEE sponsors an online seminar to help young professionals get a handle on the field

7 May 2008

For something so small, nanotechnology gets a lot of attention. More than US $60 billion in products incorporating devices of nanoscopic size were sold in 2007. It’s estimated that figure will grow to $2.6 trillion by 2014. But a lot of engineers are mystified by what nanotechnology is and how they can be part of what is expected to eventually benefit so many areas, including electronics, medicine, and the environment.

To help young professionals get a handle on the field, the IEEE GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) group sponsored an online seminar in March called “Nanotechnology: What Is It? What Are the Opportunities?” More than 250 participants got the latest word on nanotech from IEEE Fellow Meyya Meyyappan, president of the IEEE Nanotechnology Council and chief scientist for exploration technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, Calif.

“Nanotechology is not a single technology; instead it is an enabling technology. It is not the end, it is the means,” Meyyappan says. “Many consider nanotechnology to be the technology of the 21st century, so that’s why we have an obligation to educate the future generation of scientists and engineers about it.”

An archive of his live presentation is available at

THE BASICS Meyyappan covered the fundamentals and discussed current research. He explained that because metal nanoparticles melt at lower temperatures than the bulk metal they’re made from, the number of atoms on the surface increases, thereby changing the particles’ physical, chemical, electrical, mechanical, and optical properties.

“The number of atoms on the surface is going to be larger and the number of atoms on the bulk will be smaller, affecting nearly every application,” he notes.

BENEFITS The field of nanoelectronics is expected to offer more efficient processors with lower energy use and lower cost per gate. Researchers are attempting to produce mass-storage devices at multi-terabit levels that will be inexpensive, accurate, and consume little power. And integrated logic, memory, and sensors are predicted to pop up in kitchen appliances and other consumer products.

“Smart refrigerators will be outfitted with different sensors that will be able to not only count the number of eggs left in a carton and send a message to your grocery store to restock them, but also tell you which eggs have gone bad,” Meyyappan says.

Nanotech is also making headway in genetics. Medical researchers are working with nanocores to speed up the process of DNA sequencing. A nanocore is a membrane only 1 or 2 nanometers thick that matches the size of DNA. Because DNA is conductive, when it goes through the nanocore, a background electric current drops because of the core’s tight fit. Researchers are working to reduce the time it takes to determine someone’s genetic makeup by measuring how much and for how long the current is suppressed, and correlating that information with the individual nucleus type.

“Someday you will deposit a sample of your DNA at your doctor’s office and know your genetic makeup in a few hours,” Meyyappan says. “This will lead to diagnostics and therapeutics based on one’s genetic makeup.”

Two other areas of research are biocompatible artificial tissues and organs, and early-warning sensors for cancer and other diseases.

Using nanomaterials to improve the environment is another active area. The materials have a large surface area per given volume. For example, four grams of carbon nanotubes have the same surface area as one U.S. football field. A carbon nanotube is the tubular form of carbon, and its diameter is one nanometer (and up to two nanometers long).

Such large surface areas mean a bigger absorption rate for various gases and vapors, leading to the ability to support catalysts for conversion reactions.

“For example, to convert nitrous oxide into nitrogen and oxygen you need a large surface area that can support the catalyst,” Meyyappan says. “Using carbon nanotubes means your conversion reactor doesn’t have to be huge.”

Nanomaterials are also being used to improve the efficiency of solar and fuel cells, as well as solid-state lighting for the home. Researchers are working to develop processes to reduce the manufacturing costs of such technologies.

CONCERNS Meyyappan, who acknowledges that not much is known about the health and safety aspects of nanomaterials, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken the lead in asking for studies.

“We already have laws and regulations that apply to macromaterials, and the same will apply to nanomaterials,” he says. “We need to spend a lot of time studying the safety aspects of these materials to develop the knowledge, and then we can apply the regulations.”

Meyyappan notes that new enabling technologies take about 20 years to put down their roots and about 50 to 60 years to build themselves up before they become commodities.

“It’s going to take another decade to see the massive impact of this technology,” he says. “We are early in the game. The bottom line is to be patient.”

Learn More