National Physical Laboratory


Magnifying Glass
Magnifying glass 


Nanotechnology is a compilation of technologies researching the ability to control or manipulate matter, structures and systems on the atomic and molecular scale.

Nanotechnology, derived from the Greek word for dwarf, deals with research at the scale of nanometres (nm). A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, or a millionth of a millimetre - dimensions less than 1/100,000 the diameter of a human hair!

Much of the research is still ongoing in this new field with opportunities for advancement in almost every field of science and engineering, including biomedicine, computers and even the manufacturing of clothing!

A Lesson from Nature

Atoms are the building blocks for all matter in our natural world. An atom is made up of a small, heavy nucleus in the centre surrounded by a relatively large, light cloud of electrons.

The nucleus consists of protons and neutrons that are made up of quarks. Atoms bonding together form molecular structures. The molecule is the smallest indivisible portion of a pure compound that retains a set of unique chemical and physical properties.

Molecules make up the air we breathe, the water we drink, even the living cells in our bodies - nature's own nanomachines.

The goal of nanotechnology is to be able to manipulate each individual atom or molecule and engineer them in a pattern to produce a desired structure - similar to arranging LEGO® bricks.

Medical Applications
Medical applications 

Seeing Single Molecules

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's national standards laboratory, in collaboration with Imperial College is using powerful analytical techniques, such as Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), to actually analyse single molecules.

This ability to make spectroscopic measurements on just one molecule of a substance represents an amazing increase in the ability to observe the 'nuts and bolts' of life.

Potential applications of such a technology would include hand-held scanners for instant medical diagnosis, allergen detection devices to screen foods for nuts and dairy and the development of crime scene instruments to gather evidence faster and accurately.

Some Perspective on Molecular Nanotechnology…

Now that is one big millennium wheel…

London Eye
Size of nano-things 
Imagine if one molecule of water was magnified to the size of this full stop.

If the London Eye were magnified by the same amount it would be as big as the Earth.

Sorry … I have a headache?

Every time we take a single aspirin tablet we consume more than 1x1020 molecules of aspirin (or acetylsalicylic acid), that's 100,000,000,000,000,000,000!

Mass of nano-things 

Wow that grain of sand is heavy…

If you wanted to balance a grain of sand on a set of weighing scales using single molecules of water, you would need one billion billion water molecules, that's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Tennis Superhero
Tennis Superhero 

Nanoparticles in the 21st Century

While nanotechnology's commercial application is limited, nanoparticles are being used in a number of industries from electronics to cosmetics.

Currently nanoparticles are combined with existing materials to improve their strength and efficacy.

Everyday products that benefit from the unique properties of nanoscale materials include:

  • Stain-free clothing
  • Sunscreens and cosmetics
  • Longer-lasting tennis balls
  • Lightweight, stronger tennis racquets
  • Scratch-proof and glare-reducing coatings for spectacles
  • Paints and coatings to protect against corrosion and radiation

New Frontiers of Nanotechnology

Solar Energy

Currently solar power is not economical due to the cost of solar cells, photovoltaic modules that convert the sun's energy directly into electricity.

Nanotechnology has the potential to manufacture solar cells inexpensively thus moving solar power into the mainstream - perhaps running whole cities on solar power!

Cartoon Sugar Cube

Atom Computers

Nanotechnology will be needed to create a new generation of smaller computer components.

Molecular computers could contain storage devices capable of storing thousands of billions of bytes of information or deliver a billion billion instructions per second in a structure the size of a sugar cube.


Effective detectors of specific molecules can be developed and integrated into compact devices for medical diagnostic purposes; for instance applying NPL's research on single molecule detection and microfluidics (a technology used to control the flow of small amounts of fluid such as blood or saliva samples, around a chip and perform small chemical tests) to develop these diagnostic instruments.

Cartoon Diamond Plane

Diamond Planes

Diamond, a form of carbon, is the hardest naturally occurring material, but very expensive and not easily malleable. With nanotechnology, carbon atoms could be arranged to create an inexpensive workable diamond material to construct a Boeing 747 whose weight was 50 times lighter but just as strong!

Cartoon Mood Shirt

Mood Shirt

Imagine the future where clothing, wall paint, and lighting all change colour to match or influence our mood. Clothing treated with nanotechnology, including intelligent fibres, interactive textiles or smart fabrics, will be able to change colour in a flash. So if you can't find a shirt to match your trousers, push a button on your shirt to pick a colour and you are out the door - now to find your door keys.

Spectrum of Size


  Milky Way Galaxy's disk diameter 4.7 x 1026 m (1 000 000 light years)
Planet Earth's equatorial diameter 1.275 6 x 107 m (12 756 km)
Average Person Average person's height 1.7 m
Raindrop Rain drop 10-2 m (1 cm)
  A molecule 10-9 m (1 nanometre)
Cartoon Atom Atom with orbiting electrons 10-10 m (1 angstrom)
Neutron & proton, which form the nucleus of the atom

10-15 m (1 femtometre)


Quark, which make up neutrons and protons


10-18 m (1 attometre)


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