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The vision of the Nano Institute of Utah is to create an environment in which world class researchers can attain global recognition by conquering interdisciplinary challenges and by commercializing their nanoscience breakthroughs.
The prefix “nano-” means “dwarf” in the original Greek. As a term used in science and technology, “nano” refers to studies and implementations dealing with matter (atoms and molecules) on an extremely tiny scale. A nanometer (nm) is equal to one billionth of a meter. (To put it in perspective, the period at the end of this sentence is about 500,000 nm in diameter.) The focus of nanotechnology is the design and creation of useful devices with dimensions between 1 and 100 nm. Although we currently have technological devices in operation all around us on a microscale (in computers, etc.), this is nothing particularly novel because their design and function mimics that of macroscale structures. But on an atomic/molecular level, matter exhibits a very different set of characteristics, and harnessing the properties thereof for human benefit opens an entirely new realm of possibility.
The principal fields that are vigorously researching, developing, and implementing nanotechnology include medicine, computing, communications, engineering, materials science, biology, chemistry, energy, security, and the military. For example, carbon nanotubes, the strongest substance yet created, are a nanomaterial that can be used for optics, electronics, architecture, and other technologies. Nanosensors are biological or chemical sensory points that convey nanoscale information, and can be used in medicine for diagnosing precise locations of cancerous cells, or used in computing as gateways for building small integrated circuits. And DNA nanotechnology seeks to create innovative, controllable, structural (not just genetic) materials formed by utilizing DNA's unique molecular recognition properties. While these developments are small in scale, they have gigantic ramifications on what we can expect to see in the future of humankind.
“Nano” is becoming an increasingly trendy term in science fiction and popular culture, but this is not without reason. The truth is that the likely future of all technology will look like something out of present-day science fiction because of the remarkable abilities of nanoscale objects. And the fact that things which only formerly existed in our creative imaginations are not only possible, but plausible, make nanotechnology a very exciting concept indeed. One day there may be the means, with the help of carbon nanotubes, to construct a space elevator, eventually eliminating the need for fuel hungry launch tanks for space shuttles. Cancer will not only be accurately treatable, but even preventable. Buildings and homes will be powered by solar energy gathered from a thin, sprayed-on film of nano-solar-cells working in conjunction with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Computer hard drives could become paper thin, and monitors will be flexible, unbreakable, and have exquisite resolution. And the list goes on. Certainly there are environmental and societal concerns with nanotechnology, but no more so than we have with macrotechnology, and nanotechnology may, in fact, prove to be part of the solution to cleaning up environmental waste and helping impoverished nations to gain affordable food and health care.
Efforts to coordinate the advancements in the nanotech community began with federal agencies coalescing in the late '90s to form the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology. In 2000 the group's objectives gained federal recognition, instituting the government-funded National Nanotechnology Initiative of the National Science Foundation. The field is a matter of national interest as it holds the greatest promise for the improvement of the environment, global security, disease treatment, communications, and human life in general. Teams of researchers from universities across the globe are collaborating their findings, and the technology is progressing rapidly.
Nanotechnology is already a reality in the world around us. A few nanotechonolgical developments that are in common use today include water-resistant sunscreen, wrinkle-free or stain-repellant clothing, and ski wax. Nanocomposites are being used to simultaneously increase the strength and decrease the weight of materials used in manufacturing car parts and golf clubs. Quantum-dot nanocrystals emit light, like LEDs, but at various colors, and nanocrystals can also form to make antibacterial coatings and increase the longevity of metals. But most significant impacts of nanotechnology are yet to come, and are closer to being realized than you might think.