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How has Nanotechnology Developed Over Time?

Since Richard Feynman, the physicist and Nobel Prize laureate, also known as the father of modern nanotechnology presented a famous lecture “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” at the California Institute of Technology in 1959, the concept of nanotechnology has been widely popularized.

Introduction to NanotechnologyThe nano, one thousand millionths of a meter (10−9 m) comes from the Greek word ‘dwarf’. Although Feynman’s lecture introduced the excellent prospects of manipulating individual atoms, the Romans first used the conceptual inception of a nanoparticle in the fourth century in the famous Lycurgus cup (Freestone, Meeks, Sax, & Higgitt, 2007).

The cup currently placed in the British Museum collection in London is the oldest example of dichroic glass, which is made up of a small proportion of gold and silver colloidal nanoparticles dispersed throughout the glass material. The cup changes color based on the light's location and the conditions, appearing green in reflected light and red-purple when light transmits through the glass.

Nanotechnology deals with the understanding and controlling of matter at the nanoscale between 1 to 100 nm (Hulla, Sahu, & Hayes, 2015). By manipulating the nanoparticles’ shape and size at the atomic level, their unique properties can be explored to enable novel applications in a wide range of fields, from chemistry, physics, and biology to engineering and electronics. 

Nanotechnology in Early YearsBefore Feynman introduced the concept of studying nanoparticles, Michael Faraday had already studied the unique optical and electronic properties of colloidal suspensions of “Ruby” gold in 1857 (Thompson, 2007).

Feynman demonstrated the ability of gold nanoparticles to produce different-colored solutions under certain lighting conditions. Later, it was a Japanese scientist, Norio Taniguchi, who became the first person to use the term ‘nanotechnology’ in 1974 (Sandhu, 2006), which was later familiarized in his book by Dr. K.E. Drexler in 1986 (Drexler, 1986).

He described the build-up of complex machines from individual atoms to produce nanostructures. Since then, nanotechnology has been commonly categorized in modern science.

Related StoriesAs nanotechnology progressed, the physicists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in 1981 at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory.

STM uses a sharp tip that moves so close to a conductive surface of the material that the atoms' electron wave functions overlap with the surface atom wave functions to understand the surface properties.

Towards the late 20th century, two main approaches were introduced to describe different possibilities for synthesizing nanostructures: top-down and bottom-up.

The top-down approach deals with breaking down bulk material to get nano-sized particles. Alternatively, in the bottom-up approach, the nanostructures are built-up from the bottom: atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule, using physical and chemical methods (nanografi, 2019). 

Modern Application of NanotechnologyThe beginning of the 21st century experienced ever-growing interest in the emerging fields of nanotechnology (Bayda, Adeel, Tuccinardi, Cordani, & Rizzolio, 2020).

Due to their relatively large surface area, a nanoparticle can be easily functionalized with ligands to enable drug delivery (National Cancer Institute, 2017). 

Find out more about nanoparticle production systems hereThe concept of manipulating matter at the atomic level to invent different innovations in different fields shaped the national research priorities. In the United States, President George W. Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, emphasizing the importance of nanotechnology research and creating the National Technology Initiative (NNI).

The scientists also learned to notably design nanoparticles according to the need in different science fields, including physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering. 

The discovery of multi-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) by Iijima in 1991 brought new and interesting perspectives to nanotechnology. Due to their fascinating properties, CNTs have emerged to be one of the most inspected conductive materials in the biomedical and electronics fields (Cheap Tubes Inc., 2019).

Another emerging development of nanotechnology application has been in the medical field, such as diagnostic biosensors, cancer treatment, drug delivery (Panda, et al., 2020), and molecular imaging probes (Siddique & Chow, 2020).

On-going research in nanotechnology-based cancer therapy has enabled the discovery of the means to target chemotherapies directly and selectively to cancerous cells. The research extends beyond drug delivery into the creation of new therapeutics available only through nanomaterial properties.

Nanotechnology properties have also been investigated in improving the environment through inventing techniques that generate less pollution during the manufacture of materials (Ryding, 2019). One notable example comes from the research of Chen, Li, & Kanan, who has worked in optimizing the thickness of silver oxide film using silver nanoparticles that help in the reduction of CO2.

In the food sector, the use of nanomaterials has been considered in production, packaging, and bioavailability (Singh, et al., 2017).

The Future of NanotechnologyNanotechnology is one of the most promising technologies in today’s generation. The ability to convert the nanoscience theory to useful applications by observing, measuring, assembling, controlling and manufacturing matter at the nanometer scale has been well appreciated and utilized by many scientists.

Remarkable progress has been made in improving the traditional chemotherapy drugs for cancer treatment. Newly invented nanomaterials and miniaturization of nanotechnology allow the smaller and more efficient sensor device to be fitted into the patient’s body to monitor health, enabling doctors to personalize their treatment.

The use of nanomaterials has also helped create batteries that can store more energy for electric cars and solar panels.

In the future, nanotechnology additives will have the potential to demonstrate self-sense properties that help materials to self-heal when damaged, which could be useful in the aviation industry.

References and Further ReadingBayda, S., Adeel, M., Tuccinardi, T., Cordani, M., & Rizzolio, F. (2020). The History of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: From Chemical–Physical Applications to Nanomedicine. Molecules. doi:10.3390/molecules25010112

Cheap Tubes Inc. (2019). Applications of Carbon Nanotubes. [Online] AZoNano: (Accessed on 26 November, 2020)

Chen , Y., Li, C. W., & Kanan, M. W. (2012). Aqueous CO2 reduction at very low overpotential on oxide-derived Au nanoparticles. J Am Chem Soc. doi:10.1021/ja309317u

Drexler, E. K. (1986). The coming era of nanotechnology. Whole Earth Review 27.

Freestone, I., Meeks, N., Sax, M., & Higgitt, C. (2007). The Lycurgus Cup — A Roman nanotechnology. Gold Bull. doi:10.1007/BF03215599

Hulla, J. E., Sahu, S. C., & Hayes, A. W. (2015). Nanotechnology: History and future. Human & experimental toxicology, 34(12). doi:10.1177/0960327115603588

nanografi. (2019). Metallic Nanoparticles: Top-Down and Bottom-up Approaches. [Online] nanografi: (Accessed on 26 November, 2020)

National Cancer Institute. (2017). National Cancer Institute- Division of Cancer Treatment & Diagnosis. [Online] Treatment and Therapy: (Accessed on 26 November, 2020)

Panda, K. M., Panda, K. S., Singh, D. Y., Jit, P. B., Behara, R. K., & Dhal, K. N. (2020). Role of Nanoparticles and Nanomaterials in Drug Delivery: An Overview. Advances in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. doi:10.1007/978-981-15-2195-9_19

Ryding, S. (2019). Using Nanoparticles for an Environmental Cleanup. [Online] AZoCleantech: (Accessed on 26 November, 2020)

Sandhu, A. (2006). Who invented nano? Nature Nanotechnology, 1(87). doi:10.1038/nnano.2006.115

Scanning Tunneling Microscope. (n.d.). [Online] IBM100: (Accessed on 26 November, 2020)

Siddique, S., & Chow, J. C. (2020). Application of Nanomaterials in Biomedical Imaging. nanomaterials. doi:10.3390/nano10091700

Singh, T., Shukla, S., Kumar, P., Wahla, V., Bajpai, V. K., & Rather, I. A. (2017). Application of Nanotechnology in Food Science: Perception and Overview. Front. Microbiol. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2017.01501

Thompson, D. (2007). Michael Faraday's recognition of ruby gold: the birth of modern nanotechnology. Gold Bull. doi:10.1007/BF03215598

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Parva ChhantyalAfter graduating from The University of Manchester with a Master's degree in Chemical Engineering with Energy and Environment in 2013, Parva carried out a PhD in Nanotechnology at the Leibniz University Hannover in Germany. Her work experience and PhD specialized in understanding the optical properties of Nano-materials. Since completing her PhD in 2017, she is working at Steinbeis R-Tech as a Project Manager.

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Publication date: 30/11/2020



This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.