What makes nanotechnologies really interesting to scientists and companies is that when you start to work with materials on the scale of atoms and molecules their typical characteristics start to change and unusual things can happen...
For example, a sheet of aluminium foil is a handy way to keep your sandwiches fresh until lunchtime. But if you take that same aluminium and grind it into smaller and smaller pieces, when they become very, very tiny (nanosized in fact) something odd happens – they start to explode! This makes aluminium nanoparticles great for putting in rocket fuel, but probably not something you want near your lunch!
The dawn of nano
The Roman makers of the Lycurgus Cup knew that if they added tiny particles of gold and silver when making glass it would turn a different colour when light shone through it.
The Greeks and Romans may have known how to make that effect, but no-one knew why and how it happened until recently.
The invention of a special new microscope called the STM (scanning tunnelling microscope) in the late 1980’s, which won a Nobel prize for its two inventors, allowed scientists not just to see individual atoms and molecules, but for the first time to move them about. At this point, it became possible for us to really understand that it was particles of gold and silver that were on the nanoscale which made the Lycurgus cup change color.
IBM in atoms
Here’s the IBM logo made by moving individual Xenon atoms using the STM in 1990. At this scale it would be possible to write the entire contents of Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin
Nano in nature
Nature has been using nanotechnologies long before even the Romans started taking an interest. Bright red sunsets are caused by nanoparticles in the atmosphere, much of which is caused by volcanic eruptions. Milk contains nano-protein particles suspended in water, nanoscale hairs on the sole of a gecko’s feet allow it stick to a wall or a ceiling, and the nanostructure of a lotus leaf repels even strong glues, to name just a few examples.
Many scientists are drawing inspiration from nature - we can now observe at close hand how nature does these things and then apply those lessons to make new or improved products or processes
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