Nano FAQ

1: What makes things nano?

‘Nano’ refers to something that is very small. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a metre while a nanosecond is one billionth of a second.

2: What is special about nano stuff?

Because nano particles are so small, they have very special properties. The small size effects their physical properties, like their surface area, magnetic properties, melting point and electrical conductivity. Their size also effects their quantum properties – quantum confinement, discrete states, superpositions, and entanglement.
An example of how this effects them is their surface area – they have an extremely large surface area compared to their size. This is important as it means they have large reactive surfaces for things like catalysis, absorption and other processes.
When you combine nano particles with other materials, they lend their special properties to those materials forming exciting new substances.

3: What is nanoscience and nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology involves using the special properties of nano particles. Some definitions are:

  • Nanoscience is the study and discovery of these new properties. It is a multidisciplinary field involving physics, chemistry and biology
  • Nanotechnology is the use of these new properties in special products and applications
4: How is nanotechnology used?

Nanotechnology creates new materials that have applications across a variety of industries, for example, creating biomarkers used in medical diagnosis, creating very sensitive sensors that have a variety of applications, creating catalysts that can radically change the rate of a reaction, and creating strong and light new materials.

5: What is a bucky ball?
A bucky ball is a molecule that is made entirely from carbon, also known as a fullerene. The most well-known fullerene is the bucky ball or C60 molecule, which is properly named the Buckminsterfullerene. It has a soccer-ball shape.
6: How do we see nano particles and structures?
Because of the extremely small scale of nanoscience and nanotechnology, we need special equipment to help us do our research. Many different kinds of equipment are needed, such sa special microscopes that have the ability to look at things in the nanoscale. Examples of such microscopes are the Transmission Electronic Microscope (TEM), the Scanning Electronic Microscope (SEM) and the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). Other equipment is also necessary depending on what material one is looking at and what information one wants to find out, for example, optical equipment, electrical equipment, and various kinds of polymer equipment.
7: What are nanoparticles?

These are tiny particles that have a very large surface area compared to their size ( >400m2/gm) that have magnetic properties, ductility and formability, and are important in catalytic activity. They have various uses including in catalysts, creating flexible electronics, and in solar cells.

8: What are carbon nanotubes?

These are rolled up carbon sheets that behave like metal or semiconductors. They conduct electricity and heat extremely well, are 100x stronger than steel but only weigh one sixth the weight of steel. If you combine them with other materials, you can get materials that are very strong and light and that have great conductive properties.

9: What are quantum dots?

Quantum dots are tiny tiny crystals that are semiconductors. They are special because their conducting abilities are closely related to their size and shape. This means that different quantum dots emit different colour light when they are excited. This makes them extremely useful in a number of applications such as biomarkers, sensors, in special coatings, solar cells and diode lasers.

10: What are nanocomposites?

Nanocomposites are made by combining a number of materials together including nanoparticles, where the resultant material has properties that differ widely from that of the component materials. The nanoparticle greatly influences the properties of the resultant composite.

11: Where can I find out more information? South African Nanotechnology Initiative – about nanotechnology and nanoscience The New Scientist’s portal on nanotech, including news items and articles Center for Responsible Nanotechnology