"Nano“ – The prefix “nano” – derived from the Greek word “nanos” meaning “dwarf” – means, in its modern scientific sense, an order of magnitude: one billionth of something. A nanometer, thus, is one billionth of a meter, or a millionth of a millimeter – or, in physical terms, the breadth of three to four atoms placed side by side. To express this in terms we can better relate to in our daily lives: A human hair is 50,000 nanometers in diameter. Nano-sized structures, thus, are incredibly small – so small, in fact, that they cannot be seen even by high-powered optical microscopes, let alone the human eye. In this “nanoworld”, materials and structures have dramatically different properties – for example, different color, hardness or electrical conductivity than they normally would. Here, in the realm of quantum mechanics, different physical laws apply than in the macro world we observe in our day-to-day lives.
Assuming we have a quartz cube with a side length of one centimeter. Each of its six sides has one square centimeter surface. That means the surface of the entire cube comes to 6cm². Now we cut the block on each side ten times with a fine saw. So we get 10 multiplied 10 multiplied 10, this is equivalent to 1.000 tiny cubes with a side length of one millimeter. The surface of one of these tiny cubes comes to only six square millimeter but all thousand cubes together get a surface of 60 square centimeters with the same volume of 1.000 cubic millimeters (one cubic centimeter). The experiment can be repeated by cutting the cubes several times until every tiny cube gets a side length of one nanometer. Finally, the surface of the nanocube would be 60 million square centimeters, which means 6.000 square meters. Suddenly, one cubic centimeter quartz fills out one quarter of a soccer field.
The word “nanotechnology”, however, can be defined and explained in many different ways depending on which particular aspects of this complex and transformational field are being emphasized. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides a definition which is both comprehensive and precise:
“Nanotechnology is the set of technologies that enables the manipulation, study or exploitation of very small (typically less than 100 nanometers) structures and systems. Nanotechnology contributes to novel materials, devices and products that have qualitatively different properties.”