Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Monique from Dallas, GA. Monique Wonders, “What is nanotechnology” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Monique!

How do you define progress? For many years, it has seemed like "better" has been synonymous with "bigger." Buildings? They've gotten steadily taller. Televisions? The bigger, the better! Even smartphones have nearly outgrown the palm of your hand.

Many scientists, though, think the technology of the future will be smaller. Much, much smaller. How much smaller? Try tiny beyond your wildest imagination. What are we talking about? Nanotechnology, of course!

Nanotechnology is a broad term that encompasses technology, science, and engineering across many different fields, such as chemistry, biology, and physics. What they have in common is that they involve products created and experiments conducted at the nanoscale, which is generally considered to be between one and 100 nanometers.

So just how tiny is a nanometer? It's a concept that's difficult for most of us to grasp. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Most of us think an inch is a small unit of measurement. There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch.

If you've ever read a newspaper, you know how thin newspaper is. A typical piece of newspaper is approximately 100,000 nanometers thick. Comparing a single nanometer to a meter is like comparing a marble to the entire Earth.

Nanotechnology can trace its roots back to a speech given by physicist Richard Feynman at the California Institute of Technology in 1959. He described a future in which scientists would be able to manipulate individual atoms and molecules.

The term "nanotechnology" was first used over a decade later by Professor Norio Taniguchi. Modern nanotechnology didn't really begin, though, until 1981, when the scanning tunneling microscope was invented, and scientists were finally able to observe individual atoms. The invention of the atomic force microscope also helped to fuel the interest in and growth of nanotechnology.

Why would scientists want to control individual atoms and molecules? What benefits could there possibly be to creating materials at the nanoscale? As it turns out, scientists have learned that nanomaterials tend to have several very beneficial properties, including lighter weight, higher strength, and greater chemical reactivity.

One good example is the carbon nanotube. Scientists create carbon nanotubes by rolling a sheet of graphite molecules into a tube. When the molecules are oriented in a particular way, they result in a material that's one-sixth the weight of steel…but hundreds of times stronger! Using such material in vehicles could result in significant advances in both fuel economy and passenger safety.

Scientists who work on the nanoscale are particularly excited about its possibilities in the medical field. What if nanomedicines could be delivered with incredible precision to affected areas or nanorobots could be programmed to perform surgeries and even attack and destroy cancer cells? The potential applications of nanotechnology in the medical field appear endless.

You don't necessarily have to wait until the future to experience nanotechnology at work, though. There are already many products and technologies taking advantage of the nanoscale.

For example, some of the latest sunscreen lotions contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide. These smaller particles allow you to put on a clear coat of sunscreen rather than the thick, white layer you're probably used to. You can also find nanotechnology in new fabrics, cosmetics, and even televisions.

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