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What is Nanoengineering?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 21, 2024
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Nanoengineering is one field of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is an umbrella term that encompasses all fields of science that operate on the nanoscale. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or three to five atoms in width. It would take approximately 40,000 nanometers lined up in a row to equal the width of a human hair. Nanoengineering concerns itself with manipulating processes that occur on the scale of 1-100 nanometers.

The general term, nanotechnology, is sometimes used to refer to common products that have improved properties due to being fortified with nanoscale materials. One example is nano-improved tooth-colored enamel, as used by dentists for fillings. The general use of the term “nanotechnology” then differs from the more specific sciences that fall under its heading.

Nanoengineering is an interdisciplinary science that builds biochemical structures smaller than bacterium, which function like microscopic factories. This is possible by utilizing basic biochemical processes at the atomic or molecular level. In simple terms, molecules interact through natural processes, and nanoengineering takes advantage of those processes by direct manipulation.

Nanoengineering, in its infancy, has seen some early successes with using DNA as a catalyst to self-assemble simple structures. In 2006 a Brown University research team was able to grow zinc oxide nanowires of approximately 100-200 nm in length by fusing snippets of synthetic DNA to carbon nanotubes. DNA, nature’s manual for creating matter from the bottom up, is of particular interest in the field of nanoengineering. By assembling specific DNA code a nanoengineer can set up the conditions for the genetic code to perform tasks that result in the biochemical assembly of nanomaterials.

The implications of being able to manipulate the “growth” of materials from the atomic level up are enormous. Nanoengineering could potentially lead to a plethora of revolutionary materials and products that would not only benefit areas like aerospace, medicine and technology, but everyday life. Nanoengineering could lead to such practical applications as self-cleaning paint that never fades or needs waxing; planes with skins that de-ice themselves and adjust to different aerodynamic environments; and more efficient and cleaner burning fuels.

One of the most exciting aspects of nanoengineering is that it is exceptionally cost-effective, environmentally friendly (raw product is abundant), non-polluting, and requires little energy. Nanoengineering is believed to be a promising field for young scientific minds looking for a chance to ride the leading edge of a groundbreaking wave of new science heading our way. It is widely believed nanotechnology will have a greater impact on the world than the Industrial Revolution and is predicted to be a multi-billion dollar business by 2015.

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Discussion Comments
By anon329194 — On Apr 08, 2013

"We should be fine." That's reassuring, until of course, with further research, they find that they can manipulate the very structure of an atom and then what'll happen? Now they'll be able to create "elements" which will then earn them a Nobel Prize. At what point will they learn that there are just certain things we as humans aren't supposed to mess with?

However, you can't tell a scientist who's spent his whole life on research to stop and "you're going too far". We as humans will always go too far, which happens to be the very reason we are in the political dilemma we are in.

We as humans are a threat to ourselves because we are humans, not computers and we make mistakes. I'll have to agree that the technology has its benefits but the risk of it getting into the wrong hands is too high. People are always looking to make that buck, and what if it gets into the hands of terrorists?

I don't trust another human with this type of responsibility. I hate to be so pessimistic but it's dangerous and we as humans always have to learn by trial and error,I'm just saying, I'd hate for that error to wipe out 90 percent of the planet!

By bythewell — On Jun 05, 2012

@umbra21 - The technology scares me and it's not just because I read too many science fiction novels. It's the same kind of playing with fire that they do when they try to manipulate genetic material.

Nanomaterial is the same in that, once it gets out of our control it would be near impossible to regain it. And it's easy to say that they simply won't make the stuff self replicate and that solves the problem. In order for it to be effective it needs to either be very enduring or self replicating, because it's so small. But, because it's so small if it is let loose, say into a human body, or even into the atmosphere, then how can they ever account for it again?

It's a dangerous path and this isn't even mentioning the potential for people to deliberately misuse it.

By umbra21 — On Jun 04, 2012

@KoiwiGal - It's a shame that most people's introduction to nanotechnology is through those sorts of science fiction stories. It is very rarely portrayed in a positive light.

Although it's good in a way, because it means that scientists aren't going to take the technology lightly. It does have a huge potential for harm, but its potential for good is even bigger.

One of the reasons cancer is such a big deal right now is that it is so difficult to target cancer cells, whether by surgery or by radiation or chemo. If they could program little nano machines that could target cancer cells we would have our solution for many previously incurable cancers.

They could do almost anything really. I mean, if you can manipulate materials at that level you can make whatever you want.

By KoiwiGal — On Jun 04, 2012

It's so exciting to live in the time when nanoengineering is really starting to take off. I've been reading about it in science fiction for a long time and I can't wait to see what we actually end up doing with it.

Of course, often in science fiction it turns out to be the worst mistake humanity ever made. The thing that people are always a bit wary of is little nano robots that can self replicate, as they could act like a virus if they were ever released, self replicating and doing whatever they were meant to do, but doing it too much. The writers usually do this to warn about excess.

For example, in one short story, the nano machines are used to improve human memory and mental facilities. But, they are told that in order to fulfill their programming they need to make the person happy. So, eventually they figure out if they manipulate the brain into making the person high all day, the person is "happy" and therefore they've succeeded.

But, as long as we use them carefully and treat them like a potential environmental threat, we should be fine.

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