Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology


Updated Thursday, 22nd September 2005

Nanotechnology...nanowhat? You may not have heard of it, but some claim that during this century nanotechnology will revolutionise our lives

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

The Nanotechnology Programme Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team Molecular wheel

So what is it?
Nanotechnology is technology that works at the scale of the nanometer - one billionth (1,000,000,000th) of a metre.

That's very, very small ... about the same as 10,000th the diameter of a human hair.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of structures at the atomic and molecular scale. This gives substances new properties - with huge economic potential.

Back in 1959, physicist Richard Feynman predicted that in the future we'd be able to build tiny machines, atom by atom. Now his dream is being realised as scientists learn to manipulate matter at the nano-scale level.

This is the birth of nanotechnology!

Molecular Abacus The invention of the scanning tunneling electron microscope in 1981 allowed scientists to start manipulating atoms and molecules, pushing them into interesting shapes. They demonstrated this new ability by making a molecular abacus and a molecular wheel.

Nanotechnology took a great leap forward in 1985 when new molecular building blocks were discovered. Christened 'Buckminsterfullerene', or 'buckyballs' for short, it was a previously unknown form of carbon. The incredibly strong, stable, football-shaped molecule kick-started an atomic building boom.

Buckyball Some scientists say nanotechnology will dramatically change every aspect of our lives. They envisage a world where we'll build tiny nanorobots that can manufacture endless amounts of food, fight disease, and go out into the environment to clear up pollution. They predict a nanotopia where all the world's ills will disappear...

But other scientists insist that such claims are misleading. They say that nanotechnology will bring changes that are exciting but somewhat less dramatic - the production of new materials, and advances in computing as we move from microchips to nanochips

A born and bred Glaswegian, Jim Gimzewski is now a permanent resident in Switzerland. He's a leading research scientist at IBM Zurich where he's been involved in nanoscale science research for the last 13 years.

Regarded as an international expert in the field of nanotechnology, Jim has written over a hundred papers and has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Feynman Prize for Nanotechnology. He has pioneered research which allows the manipulation of single atoms and molecules using scanning tunnelling microscopes. His team became famous when they used these techniques to produce a molecular abacus and a molecular wheel.

Could they one day make a molecular machine?

Sir Harry Kroto is Professor of Chemistry at Sussex University. He's most famous for discovering a new form of carbon -by chance!

Whilst carrying out experiments examining carbon molecules found in interstellar space, he and his colleagues identified the existence of C60, a previously unknown football-shaped molecule made of sixty carbon atoms that has since become a fundamental element in nanotechnology.

Its shape reminded the scientists of the geodesic dome designed by R. Buckminster Fuller, and so the molecules were named Buckminsterfullerene, or 'Buckyballs' for short. The discovery won the team the 1996 Nobel Prize.

Keen to promote communication of science, Harry ploughed his winnings into the Vega ScienceTrust.

Peter Dobson is Professor of Engineering Science at Oxford University and founder of the nanotechnology company 'Nanox', set up to develop, produce and commercialise nanocrystalline materials.

They're the same as traditional crystalline materials but produced on the nano-scale, which gives them new and unique physical properties. A wide range of products are in the pipeline, including nano-ceramics, nano-catalysts…

...and even some nano-cosmetics!

Previously director of the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) Centre for Coastal & Marine Sciences, Jacqui McGlade is now Professor of Mathematics at University College London.

She has a wide range of scientific interests, encompassing mathematics, the environment, transport, energy, and marine science - expertise that she has brought to the series as a regular guest.

She's also got plenty of experience of the natural world - as a mountain climber, an Olympic sailor and an enthusiastic deep-sea diver. Somehow, she also managed to find some time to contribute to 'The Next Big Thing'.

And your host...Colin Blakemore

Colin is Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. A renowned neuroscientist, he's also a TV and radio regular and an enthusiastic promoter of science.

Institute of Nanotechnology
Established 1997, this charity provides focus for nanotechnology, encourages new research and informs the public

Non-profit organisation set up to guide emerging technologies, focusing on nanotechnology

Nanotechnology Magazine
Monthly periodical authored by researchers and scientists, dedicated to novel topics in molecular manufacturing

Research centre geared towards creating new knowledge and technologies that span NASA's interests, including nanotechnology

IBM Zurich
IBM's research centre in Zurich...a pioneer in nanotechnology

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
The UK body that funds nanotechnology research

New Scientist
Popular UK weekly science magazine

Scientific American
Popular US weekly science magazine

The Vega Science Trust
Charity established to promote public understanding of science

Oxford Centre for Molecular Sciences
UK nanotechnology research centre





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?