Small particles - great impact

Nanotechnology is a key technology of the 21st century. Today, many everyday products such as cosmetics, lacquers or textiles are based on the use of nanotechnology or contain nanomaterials. Almost every day new applications and products appear on the market (DGUV 2010).

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (10-9 m) or one millionth of a millimeter (10-6 mm). The diameter of three gold atoms corresponds approximately in length to a nanometer.

Quantum dots with emission maxima shifted by 10 nm each.
Quantum dots with emission maxima shifted by 10 nm each.
TEM image of nano-diamonds.
TEM image of nano-diamonds.

Such structures are neither recognizable to the human eye nor optical instruments. For this reason, electron and scanning probe microscopes are used for the visualization of nanoscale structures.

Nowadays, the economic importance of nanotechnologies is enormous. In Germany, 950 companies were involved with nanotechnologies in 2015, generating sales of EUR 14 billion with an upward tendency.

>> more about the economic importance of nanotechnologies in Germany

Engineered and natural nanomaterials

Nanomaterials can be produced synthetically (engineered) in two different ways: either by comminuting the corresponding source material down to the desired nano size (“top-down”) or by controlled chemical-physical reactions in liquids and gases from single atoms or molecules ("bottom-up"). As a result, the extreme size reduction may lead to modified or completely new material properties.

However, nanomaterials can also be of natural origin. For example, volcanic ashes or the smoke from burning wood contain nanoscale soot particles. Many biological and chemical compounds such as fat droplets in milk or proteins in blood are on a nanoscale. Nanomaterials are also unintentionally produced by humans (e.g. in diesel soot).

The DGUV nano portal "Safe Handling of Nanomaterials" is mainly devoted to intentionally produced synthetic (engineered) nanomaterials.

>> more about the definitions

>> more about nanomaterials

New features

Nanotechnology involves the production, investigation and application of the smallest structures and materials. This technology makes use of effects which occur with a constant decrease in the structural size, such as:

  • the massive increase in the mass or volume-related surface of these structures or
  • possible change in material properties and behavior compared to the source material.

These effects are especially pronounced with structure sizes below 100 nanometers, approximately (DGUV 2010).

>> more about the properties of nanomaterials

Sources:

Size comparison: The ratio "nanometer to diameter of an orange" is the same as the ratio "diameter of an orange to the diameter of the earth".
Size comparison: The ratio "nanometer to diameter of an orange" is the same as the ratio "diameter of an orange to the diameter of the earth".