To more than a few people, nanotechnology has an inherently ominous tone. After all, avid sci-fi readers won’t soon forget the out-of-control nanoswarm in Michael Crichton’s best-selling 2002 novel, "Prey." But more than a decade later, nanotech is still a hot topic in research labs around the world, and it doesn’t seem quite as dangerous, or nearly as esoteric, as it used to. These days, nanotech research is going on in many different fields, from manufacturing to health care, and is playing a role in many different kinds of engineering. But like many buzzwords, many folks are familiar with nanotechnology without knowing what it really means, or how advances in nanotech are likely to influence the rest of the 21st century. Let's take a look at the big strides this little technology is making in the IT world.

What Is Nanotechnology?

One of the first steps to understanding this kind of science is figuring out what kind of scale nanotechnology addresses. There are two main ways to do this – the first and more technical way is a little simpler – a nanometer, as a basic unit of size, is one billionth of a meter. In other words, divide the size of the head of a pin by about a million and you get a nanometer.

Nanotechnology, then, is essentially design at an atomic scale. Or nearly. While the atomic scale is somewhat smaller than the nanotech scale, there’s a good deal of similarity between the sizes of nano materials and those of naturally occurring molecules. Plus, if you think about the way atoms come together to make something in a macro scale, it makes a lot of sense in explaining how modern industries are using microscopic constructions to create products and drive research.

Nanotech in the IT Field

So what's the point of making something so tiny? The answer is that if you get down to the tiny building blocks of anything, you can engineer stronger or more durable materials, better shielding or coating, or other kinds of improvements. This means big changes in all kinds of manufacturing, including food, cosmetics, clothing appliances, health care and, of course, electronics. That's why no area of science is perhaps more affected by nanotech discoveries than the IT field, where nano-design is quickly renovating the standards for processors and devices.

Caroline Ross is the associate head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT; much of her work deals with various new ways to create smaller hardware, where nanoscale engineering can drive improvements in both data storage and logic applications. She says nanotech's biggest potential lies in "extending the scaling and the functionality" of devices.

In describing how nanotech is used in assembly, Ross refers to microelectronic devices, which are basically built on a nanoscale. Some examples? Ross explains that the channel length of transistors in microprocessors is typically 20–30 nanometers, and the most densely packed features in memory chips are spaced apart by a similar distance, while the thicknesses of various material layers are also measured on the nanoscale. This provides a very clear view of exactly how astoundingly small these systems are – and what could be accomplished by making them even smaller.

These memories and microprocessors are made using nanolithography, which forms the shapes and structures required to fabricate nanoscale devices. This process allows engineers to arrange patterns on a substrate to make solid-state devices for data storage, logic, sensors and other functionality. A common method called optical lithography is the industry standard, says Ross, but is only effective for a scale of around 25 nanometers and above. Smaller nanolithography can be done with a process called electron beam lithography, but Ross characterizes this method as both slow and relatively expensive. Instead, Ross is looking into self-assembly of nanoscale polymer materials, which she said can be effective within the 10 nanometer range, and may become the best new way to engineer these tiny devices.

Big Future

While it’s clear that nanotech applications have big potential for the IT field and beyond, the safety of these approaches is still up in the air. Many experts contend that nanotech is a safe and controllable way to innovate, but reports show that the FDA is considering claims that nanotech engineering in some consumer products could pose serious health hazards.

Ultimately, today’s use of nanotechnology shows that, while scientists continue to research potential outcomes, we know a lot more about this type of science than we did even 10 years ago.

And remember: The world was once largely terrified by the invisible force of electricity. We've since become accustomed to having it all around us – and even inside of us. The same is likely true for nanotechnology. The fact that it's so tiny is why it concerns us, but it's also what gives it such big potential.