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Tiny Technology Promises Big Rewards. Some May Already Be In Your Closet
National Geographic, June 2006
By Jennifer Kahn

A tsunami is unnoticeable in the open oceanÑa long, low wave whose power becomes clear only when it reaches shore and breaks. Technological revolutions travel with the same stealth. Spotting the wave while it’s still crossing the ocean is tricky, which explains why so few of us are aware of the one that’s approaching. Nanotechnology has been around for two decades, but the first wave of applications is only now beginning to break. As it does, it will make the computer revolution look like small change. It will affect everything from the batteries we use to the pants we wear to the way we treat cancer.

The main thing to know about nanotechnology is that it’s small. Really small. Nano, a prefix that means “dwarf” in Greek, is shorthand for nanometer, one-billionth of a meter: a distance so minute that comparing it to anything in the regular world is a bit of a joke. This comma, for instance, spans about half a million nanometers. To put it another way, a nanometer is the amount a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to lift a razor to his face.

Nanotechnology matters because familiar materials begin to develop odd properties when they’re nanosize. Tear a piece of aluminum foil into tiny strips, and it will still behave like aluminumÑeven after the strips have become so small that you need a microscope to see them. But keep chopping them smaller, and at some pointÑ20 to 30 nanometers, in this caseÑthe pieces can explode. Not all nanosize materials change properties so usefully (there’s talk of adding nanoaluminum to rocket fuel), but the fact that some do is a boon. With them, scientists can engineer a cornucopia of exotic new materials, such as plastic that conducts electricity and coatings that prevent iron from rusting. It’s like you shrink a cat and keep shrinking it, and then at some point, all at once, it turns into a dog.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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