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Nanotechnology: How Is It Used?

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Current and Future Applications of Nanotechnology

Fifty percent of companies on the current Dow Jones stock index are researching or producing products in nanotechnology, according to Jones Day, a legal institution with more than 2,500 lawyers on four continents.

Nanotechnology is likely to become one of the dominant technologies for the 21st century, with its potential applications for medicine, electronics, environmental applications, energy, space, food, consumer products and more. See Nanotechnology Made Clear.

Learn more about applications in nanotechnology for:


  • Nanotechnology will change the very foundations of cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention by creating new ways to deliver cancer prevention agents, creating implantable molecular sensors and developing “smart” injectable agents.
  • See a variety of medical applications in Nanomedicine.

Health, Environment and Energy

  • Nanotechnology allows for the creation of more efficient and longer-lasting solar cells, batteries and fuel cells
  • Water quality can be improved in a number of ways by nanotechnology; nanoparticles can be used to create filters that remove industrial water pollution, kill bacteria and viruses, and absorb radioactive particles. The Vestergaard Frandsen Group’s mobile personal filtration system, known as LifeStraw, is a thick plastic tube lined with nanofilters of halogenated resin that kill nearly 100 percent of bacteria and 99 percent of viruses, making contaminated water instantly drinkable.
  • Scientists could program airborne nanorobots to rebuild the thinning ozone layer, remove contaminants from water sources and clean up oil spills.
  • Nanosensors could be used to monitor the quality of air and water, the freshness of food, the quantity of pollutants and the presence of disease-causing microbes.

National Defense and Homeland Security

  • Sensors are a hot development in nanotechnology. Sensor networks that detect chemical, biological or radiological materials could be built into cargo containers with the ability to communicate verified information to a control sensor for immediate report and action.
  • With conventional paints labor-intensive to apply, the U.S. Department of Defense spends billions of dollars per years painting and repainting vehicles that are damaged or corroded. Smart coatings enabled by nanotechnology could allow vehicles to essentially detect and “heal” their own damage, as well as change color on demand to create instant camouflage. The coatings would also improve durability, reliability and performance of components to resist corrosion and oxidation. The end result is lightweight, high-strength, thermally stable and environmentally compliant nanomaterials that can be used on aircraft and spacecraft bodies and engines.
  • Nanotechnology allows a wealth of technological applications for defense use, including microchip-sized sensors, integrated into clothing, that can detect chemical and biological threats; and breathable yet sealable fabrics that create a “smart” battle suit that could also monitor the individual’s physiological status and physical position. Creating materials with dynamic properties — those that can change shape or go from liquid to solid reversibly — might allow features to be built into the “smart suit” that would include automatic wound remediation, artificial muscle power or blast protection equivalent to body armor. Nanomaterials could have the ability to expand and contract like a thermostat to conserve body heat or to resist the penetration of a bullet.
  • The capability of miniaturization that comes with nanotechnology directly reduces the weight of protective equipment carried by soldiers, police, firefighters and national defense providers. A radio worn on a harness today might be reduced to a button-sized tab on the collar, and a waterproof poncho could be replaced by a permanent, nanothin coating applied to everything the soldier carries.
  • The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT has a long-range vision for how fundamental nanoscience can make soldiers less vulnerable to enemy and environmental threats.
  • See also Responsible Nanotechnology’s Military Uses of Nanotechnology.

Industry and Manufacturing

  • Nanotechnology allows for the design of desktop computers featuring a billion processors, making them billions of times faster than those of today.
  • Manufactured materials can be made that are 100 times stronger than steel, yet more lightweight than is currently possible.
  • Super-strength nanofabrics sandwiched into normal contraction materials could be used to create stronger containers for cargo and luggage and bomb-resistant glass for office buildings and government complexes. One of the early nanotechnology successes was material that had the characteristics of Gortex with the look and feel of regular wool.
  • In the area of semiconductor manufacturing, the ability to further compact the number of transistors in a given space could substantially increase current processing capability and change the entire industry.
  • In the opto-electronics and communications industries, the ability to construct an optical switch on a chip would eliminate a significant amount of the complexity and cost of optical networks, not to mention increasing capacity.
  • In the area of sensors and sensor networks, hybrid nanomaterials can produce high-selectivity and high-sensitivity sensors for biological, radioactive and chemical detection.
  • Micropower-generating devices (MPGs) could provide enough energy to power sensors and sensor networks deployed to protect critical infrastructure like water treatment plans, roadways and bridges. Other applications could include microscopic, self-powered reconnaissance and surveillance devices like listening devices, vibration sensors and power supplies for sensor networks. The Department of Defense is currently funding research in small-scale energetic device development and management.

Wet, Dry, Bottom-Up and Top-Down Nanotechnology

Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology. In the “bottom-up” approach, materials and devices are built from molecular components that assemble themselves chemically by principles of molecular recognition.

In the “top-down” approach, objects are constructed on a nanoscale from larger entities without atomic-level control.

“Wet” nanotechnology — the study of biological systems that exist mostly in a water environment — refers to the field in which the nanoscale affects the form, function and evolution of living organisms in areas such as genetic material, membranes, enzymes and other cellular components.

“Dry” nanotechnology — derived from surface science and physical chemistry — focuses on fabrication of structures of inorganic materials such as carbon (nanotubes) and silicon, allowing for the use of metals and semiconductors.