What's so BIG about nanotechnology?

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When things get smaller, they can act in surprising ways.

The prefix "nano" means one thousand millionth, or one billionth. A nanometer, for instance, is one billionth of a meter. Nanoscience is an emerging field where scientists investigate the novel properties and behaviors of systems operating at the nanoscale. Some commonly-used materials can act in unexpected ways at this scale. For example, gold can appear red, blue or purple at the nanoscale. And when nanoparticles of iron are suspended in liquid, they create ferrofluid - a liquid that's attracted to magnets!

Gregory Phillips (butterfly)/CC BY-SA 3.0 & Jack Spades (currency)/CC BY 2.0

Nano is all around us - in nature and technology.

Nanoscale effects can be found in nature, such as the super-hydrophobic (water-resistant) properties of some leaves, and the iridescence of some butterflies, insects, and birds. Scientists and engineers have been able to recreate some of these effects in commercial products, such as stain- and water-resistant fabric, and iridescent security images on currency.

Lifesaver Systems Ltd/ Used with permission

Nanotechnologies have the potential to transform the way we live.

In the field of nanotechnology, researchers and engineers take advantage of the change in properties at the nanoscale to develop new innovations. Nano-based research in areas like clean water, food supply, energy, climate change, and disease detection and treatment may lead to unprecedented developments and entirely new applications. Some examples include targeted cancer treatments, more efficient and less expensive solar cells, and inexpensive and easy-to-use drinking water filters.

We all have a role in shaping our nano future.

Like any new technology, nanotechnology comes with costs, risks, and benefits. But through our choices as consumers and citizens, we affect the development of this new field. Consumers influence the market through purchases. Citizens help choose the political leaders who invest in and regulate new knowledge and technologies. Scientists and engineers choose what knowledge gets pursued. Companies and governments decide which technologies to invest in and how to regulate them. Citizens, scientists, government agencies, and companies can work together to maximize the benefits of nanotechnology and minimize the risks.