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  What is Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology today is an emerging set of tools, techniques and unique applications involving the structure and composition of materials on a nanoscale. IBM is one of the true pioneers in nanotechnology. Among IBM's many nanotechnology milestones, its scientists have invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) capable of imaging individual atoms, they have positioned atoms one-by-one for the first time, and incorporated sub-nanometer material layers into commercially mass-produced hard disk drive recording heads and magnetic disk coatings. IBM's current nanotechnology research aims to devise new atomic- and moleculear-scale structures and methods for enhancing information technologies, as well as discover and understand their scientific foundations. In particular, carbon nanotubes and scanning probes derived from the atomic force microscope and the STM show particular promise in enabling dramatically improved circuits and data storage devices.

Back Back to main Nanotechnology and Nanoscience webpage

  from "Nanotechnology: A Revolution in the Making"

by Dr. Thomas Theis, Director of Physical Sciences at IBM Research

When it comes to matter, size matters. The properties of materials that we notice - color, hardness, conductivity, and so on -- all depend on the nature and structure of the constituent atoms and molecules. With increasing ability to design and build on an atomic and molecular scale -- a reasonable definition of "nanotechnology" -- we are becoming better and better at developing materials with entirely new properties. Those materials, in turn, become the building blocks for more complex systems and entirely new products.

But when an emerging technology is the subject of as much hype as nanotech, it's easy to tune out and stop listening. That would be a big mistake. There are solid reasons to expect significant long-term developments in what the National Science Foundation estimates to be a trillion-dollar plus industry over the next 10 to 15 years.

Why nanotech? With it, today's supercomputer could become tomorrow's wristwatch personal assistant. Buildings and machines could signal when they need maintenance, and perhaps repair themselves. Our clothing could monitor our health and alert us to environmental hazards. All of these wonders, and many more, are scientifically possible. The difficulty comes in figuring out how and when these things will happen.

  How small is "nano"?

Technically, a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. Alternatively, Thomas Kenny of Stanford University describes it as...

...almost as wide as a DNA molecule and 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. It's about how much your fingernails grow each second and how far the San Andreas fault slips in half a second. It's the thickness of a drop of water spread over a square meter. It's one-tenth the thickness of the metal film on your tinted sunglasses or your potato chip bag. The smallest lithographic feature on a Pentium computer chip is about 100 nanometers.

from: School of Engineering to host nanotechnology symposium July 19, 2001
Stanford University News Service
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  Nanotechnology vs Nanoscience

Nanoscience is the discipline of understanding how things work, using commonly accepted experimetal and theoretical techniques. Nanotechnology is the application of that scientific knowledge to a particular industry or marketplace.


The relentless trend to miniaturize electronic devices to achieve higher operating speeds and device densities is bringing the devices into the nanometer scale. This poses a number of challenges on the fabrication technologies and affects the basic physics of device operation. At IBM we explore the quantum physics of nanometer and molecular scale devices and develop new nanofabrication technologies.

  Nanomaterials (self-assembly)

Self-organizing Nanomaterials are attractive for technology applications because they provide a means to precisely engineer nanometer-scale structures over large wafer areas. Many advances in microelectronics have been achieved through reductions in the physical size of integrated circuit components, and these technological improvements demand corresponding advances in processing at nanometer-scale dimensions.


Nanomechanics refers to the science and technology of mechanical systems which either contain nanometer-scale elements, or are used to create or make measurements on nanometer-scale entities. Such systems are often make use of elements of scanning probe microscopes, such as microcantilevers and tips with nanometer-scale sharpness. High productivity rates can often be achieved by use of parallel arrays of such elements. Current areas of interest in nanomechanics include data storage devices and nanolithography devices. In the future, some speculate that nanomechanical systems may be used to construct nanostructures on an atom-by-atom basis.

  Quantum Coherent Systems

If a physical system is very well isolated, it may be possible to perform measurements on the system before it has a chance to interact (exchange quanta of energy) with the world around it. In that case, the system is quantum coherent. The study of such systems pushes the limits of physical measurement and control. Some quantum coherent systems are regarded as promising candidates for quantum information processing (quantum computers).


In bio-nanotechnology, the materials and technology of traditional nanoscience are incorporated into biological systems. Applications range from the in vivo use of nanoparticles to assist in drug delivery and NMR imaging contrast enhancement, to in vitro technologies such as lab-on-chip biochemical assays.

  Material Characterization & Tools

The greatest challenge to developing nanoscale materials and structures is being able to look at what we have created, since many conventional characterization tools lack the resolution necessary to determine which elements are present and how they are distributed. We therefore have a long standing interest in developing innovative tools for materials characterization at the nanoscale. As well as STM and other scanning probe techniques, these tools include the highest resolution scanning transmission electron microscope in the world and high resolution electron microscope and ion scattering capabilities. In some of our microscopes we can even grow nanostructures while we watch, recording movies that enable us to understand the processes which control self-assembly in the nanoworld.

  IBM's Timeline of Nanotechnology & Nanoscience Announcements

IBM has a long and continuing commitment to nanotechnology and nanoscience that is widely recognized in business and technical communities. While IBM's work in many of these nanoscience projects is ongoing, this is an approximate timeline of key announcements related to these areas:
IBM's Timeline of Nanotechnology & Nanoscience Announcements, (C) IBM 2002

Additional Information
  • Atomic Force Microscope
  • Scanning Tunneling Microscope


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