Nanotechnology is a field of applied science and technology covering a broad range of topics. The main unifying theme is the control of matter on a scale smaller than 1 micrometer, normally between 1-100 nanometers, as well as the fabrication of devices on this same length scale. It is a highly multidisciplinary field, drawing from fields such as colloidal science, device physics, and supramolecular chemistry. Much speculation exists as to what new science and technology might result from these lines of research. Some view nanotechnology as a marketing term that describes pre-existing lines of research applied to the sub-micron size scale.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this definition, nanotechnology actually encompasses diverse lines of inquiry. Nanotechnology cuts across many disciplines, including colloidal science, chemistry, applied physics, materials science, and even mechanical and electrical engineering. It could variously be seen as an extension of existing sciences into the nanoscale, or as a recasting of existing sciences using a newer, more modern term. Two main approaches are used in nanotechnology: one is a “bottom-up” approach where materials and devices are built from molecular components which assemble themselves chemically using principles of molecular recognition; the other being a “top-down” approach where nano-objects are constructed from larger entities without atomic-level control.

The impetus for nanotechnology has stemmed from a renewed interest in colloidal science, coupled with a new generation of analytical tools such as the atomic force microscope (AFM) and the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Combined with refined processes such as electron beam lithography and molecular beam epitaxy, these instruments allow the deliberate manipulation of nanostructures, and in turn led to the observation of novel phenomena. The manufacture of polymers based on molecular structure, or the design of computer chip layouts based on surface science are examples of nanotechnology in modern use. Despite the great promise of numerous nanotechnologies such as quantum dots and nanotubes, real applications that have moved out of the lab and into the marketplace have mainly utilized the advantages of colloidal nanoparticles in bulk form, such as suntan lotion, cosmetics, protective coatings, and stain resistant clothing.

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