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Background

Small is beautiful

The prefix nano indicates extreme smallness. So small, in fact, that a nano-sized structure needs to be magnified over 10 million times before we can easily appreciate its fine detail with the naked eye.
Nanotechnology refers to technologies in which matter is manipulated on the atomic and molecular scale to create novel materials and processes. It is not just the study of the very small; it is the practical application of that knowledge.
There are two main routes of entry to the nanoworld: molecular manufacturing involves the manipulation of individual atoms (working from the bottom up); and ultra-miniaturisation results in smaller and smaller devices (building from the top down).

The nanoworld:

Three major sectors are discernible:

Nanoelectronics
Continuing the development in microelectronics, especially for computers, but at significantly smaller size-scales.

Nanobiotechnology
Combining nanoscale engineering with biology to manipulate either living systems or to build biologically inspired materials at the molecular level.

Nanomaterials
Precisely controlling the morphology at nanoscale dimensions of substances or particles to produce nanostructured materials.

Encompassing all these overlapping fields are the tools used to measure and manipulate ultrasmall structures, the nanoscale resolution microscopes.

New worlds bring new opportunities

Changes in the molecular properties of a material at the nanoscale can greatly enhance its physical and chemical properties at the large scale. We do not yet fully understand all the details behind this. The next challenge is to scale-up nanofabrication methods for mass production in industry – fundamental research is now essential to exploit the full potential of nanotechnology.

Working on it

Under the European Commission’s Fifth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (RTD), programmes receiving the most funding for nanotechnology were:

  • Improving the Quality of Life;
  • Information Society Technologies (IST);
  • Competitive and Sustainable Growth; and
  • Research Training Networks.

Two projects from each of these programmes are included here to illustrate the breadth and scope of recent nanotechnology research in the EU.

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