Frequently Asked Questions

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology encompasses science, engineering, and technology at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. Just how small is that? A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. For reference, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Nanoscale matter can behave differently than the same bulk material. For example, a material’s melting point, color, strength, chemical reactivity, and more may change at the nanoscale.

Researchers seeking to understand the fundamentals of properties at the nanoscale may call their work nanoscience; those focused on effective use of the properties may call their work nanoengineering. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at the nanoscale.

Learn more in the Nano 101 section.

What is a nanometer?

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. (A meter is 39.37 inches, or slightly longer than one yard.) The prefix “nano” means “one billionth”, or 10-9, in the international system for units of weights and measures. The abbreviation for nanometer is "nm."

For visual examples of the size of the nanoscale, see The Size of Nano.

Is nanotechnology new? Where did it come from?

Nanoscale materials have been used for over a thousand years. For example, nanoscale gold was used in stained glass in Medieval Europe and nanotubes were found in blades of swords made in Damascus. However, ten centuries passed before high-powered microscopes were invented, allowing us to see things at the nanoscale and begin working with these materials.

Nanotechnology as we now know it began more than 30 years ago, when tools to image and measure at the nanoscale became available. Around the turn of the century, government research managers in the United States and other countries observed that physicists, biologists, chemists, electrical engineers, optical engineers, and materials scientists were working on interconnected, multidisciplinary issues emerging at the nanoscale. In 2000, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was created to help these researchers benefit from each other’s insights, accelerate technology development, and foster commercialization across disciplines.

To learn more, see What is Nanotechnology?

What are nanomaterials? Do they exist in nature?

The term "nanomaterial" refers to nanoscale materials, or materials that contain nanoscale structures internally or on their surfaces. These can include engineered (or man-made) nanometer-scale objects such as nanoparticles, nanotubes, and nanofilms, as well as naturally occurring nanoparticles such as volcanic ash, sea spray, and smoke.

What are nanoparticles, nanotubes, and nanofilms?

Depending on the shape, the application, or the components, nanomaterials may be called by a variety of different names, including nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanofilms, nanoshells, nanospheres, nanowires, nanoclays, nanoconcrete, nanopolymers, and much more. Other nanomaterials have distinct qualities that have led researchers to call them by other non-nano prefix names, such as quantum dots or graphene. Generally speaking, nanomaterials are objects with one or more dimension at the nanoscale. Efforts to standardize these words are currently underway, for example, by the International Organization for Standardization. For more information, visit the Standards page.

Are nanotechnology products available today?

Yes, nanotechnology is becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives and has found its way into many commercial products, for example, strong, lightweight materials for better fuel economy; targeted drug delivery for safer and more effective cancer treatments; clean, accessible drinking water around the world; superfast computers with vast amounts of storage; self-cleaning surfaces; wearable health monitors; more efficient solar panels; safer food through packaging and monitoring; regrowth of skin, bone, and nerve cells for better medical outcomes; smart windows that lighten or darken to conserve energy; and nanotechnology-enabled concrete that dries more quickly and has sensors to detect stress or corrosion at the nanoscale in roads, bridges, and buildings. By some estimates, revenue from the sale of nanotechnology-enabled products made in the United States has grown more than six-fold from 2009 through 2016 and is projected to exceed $500 billion in 2016.

For more information, see Benefits and Applications.

Who participates in the NNI?

The NNI community extends beyond the Federal Government and includes grantees, students, companies, technical and professional societies, foundations, and others engaged in nanotechnology research and development. This vibrant community exists in large part as a result of the efforts of the NNI agencies over the past two decades. With the expansion of scientific knowledge in nanotechnology, formal and informal collaborations have developed among researchers across a diverse range of fields and countries. These interactions and collaborations have been and continue to be facilitated by agency activities including public–private partnerships, research centers, and networks. In addition to providing fabrication, characterization, and testing capabilities, the NNI’s physical infrastructure also provides a place for researchers, industry, and ideas to mix, further expanding the community. This community has broken down the traditional disciplinary boundaries and laid the foundation for interdisciplinary discovery, which is increasingly vital to research as fields converge.

If you are interested in learning how you can participate, send an email to info@nnco.nano.gov.

What is the National Nanotechnology Initiative?

The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a U.S. Government research and development (R&D) initiative involving the nanotechnology-related activities of 20 departments and independent agencies. Since 2001, Federal agencies and Cabinet-level departments have invested more than $23 billion in nanotechnology research, development, and commercialization. These investments, made under the auspices of the NNI, have enabled groundbreaking discoveries that have revolutionized science; established world-class facilities for the characterization of nanoscale materials and their fabrication into nanoscale devices; educated tens of thousands of individuals from undergraduate students to postdoctoral researchers; and fostered the responsible incorporation of nanotechnology into commercial products.

For more information on how the NNI started and how it is organized, see the page entitled What is the NNI?

What is the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO)?

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) helps to coordinate the U.S. Government’s R&D efforts in nanotechnology, serves as the central point of contact for Federal nanotechnology R&D activities, helps to foster the commercialization of nanotechnology, and provides public outreach on behalf of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NNCO also provides technical and administrative support to the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council, which coordinates the NNI. For more information, see the NNCO section of this website.

How much money does the U.S. Government spend on nanotechnology?

The cumulative NNI investment since fiscal year 2001, including the 2017 request, now totals more than $23 billion. In addition, more than $1 billion has been invested cumulatively since 2004 in funding for nanotechnology-based small businesses through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs of the participating Federal agencies. Nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety (EHS, or nanoEHS) activities have become a hallmark of the NNI, with R&D, policy, and regulation in this area extensively coordinated among Federal agencies. NanoEHS activities, including relevant topics incorporated into the Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs), account for approximately 10% of the NNI budget request from 2015-2017. Cumulative NNI EHS investments from 2006 through 2015 have now reached more than $1 billion. For more information, visit the NNI Budget page.

How does U.S. spending compare to other countries?

The United States is not the only country to recognize the tremendous economic potential of nanotechnology. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative's member agencies have cumulatively spent more than $23 billion since the inception of the NNI in 2001. According to a Lux Research estimate released in December 2015, “The U.S. leads in government (state and Federal) nanotechnology funding with $1.72 billion spent in 2013 and $1.67 billion spent in 2014. Europe’s collective spending (European Commission and individual country programs) was $2.45 billion in 2014, an increase of 9.8% from 2012. While some countries, such as the U.S., continue to have centralized government programs to coordinate nanotechnology activities, most countries no longer do. In fact, many countries no longer explicitly fund nanotechnology, although it may be a part of initiatives that are funded under different technology support programs. Because of this change, it is difficult to determine with certainty the level of nanotechnology funding by country or region.”

Learn more on the NNI Budget page.

How has the U.S. economy benefitted from investment in nanotechnology?

Although federally-funded R&D yields hard-to-quantify benefits such as students educated, degrees conferred, companies started, patents and copyrights granted, developmental partnerships formed, and private sector investment inflows, there are many indicators of the impact of this ­­­­­investment.

For example, there are over 1,900 U.S.-based companies conducting R&D, manufacturing, or product sales in nanotechnology in 2016. Of these companies engaged in the nanotechnology sector, over 36% have participated in the Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer programs funded by the Federal agencies that participate in the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The most recent Business R&D and Innovation Survey (BRDIS) conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) found approximately 1,500 companies engaged in nanotechnology with approximately 1,100 of these classified as small businesses (less than 500 employees). The difference in the number of companies cited above can be attributed to the year the data was collected and other methodologies.

A noteworthy impact of the NNI has been the focused investment by NNI-participating agencies in the establishment and development of multidisciplinary research and education centers devoted to nanoscience and nanotechnology. NNI agencies have developed an extensive infrastructure of nearly 100 major interdisciplinary research and education centers and user facilities across the United States. This cutting-edge fabrication and characterization equipment provides state-of-the-art nanoscience tools and expertise for research by non-profit or business organizations, whether small or large, for use-inspired research and some of the user facilities are available free-of-charge for non-proprietary work if the user intends to publish the research results in the scientific literature.

In December 2015, Lux Research estimated that nanotechnology-enabled products generated $1.6 trillion in global revenues in 2014; and that figure is anticipated to increase to $3.5 trillion in 2018.

How can I get funding for my research in nanotechnology?

The National Nanotechnology Initiative itself is not a funding program; funding is provided through the NNI member agencies. There are various mechanisms for funding research through these agencies. For detailed information on Federal funding programs, see Funding Opportunities. For grant information, see Current Solicitations. See also the list of Federal agency representatives to the NSET Subcommittee, who can help members of the research community find the appropriate mechanisms to apply for competitive funding programs.

Are nanotechnology products available today?

Yes, nanotechnology is enabling more and more products every day, from engine catalysts to cancer medicines to stain-proof pants, and everything in between. Revenue from the sale of nanotechnology-enabled products in the United States has grown more than six-fold from 2009 through 2016 and is projected to exceed $500 billion in 2016.

What are future workforce needs?

Nanotechnology has the potential to create many new jobs across a variety of sectors. While some jobs, will require an advanced degree, a 2014 study funded by the National Science Foundation points out that 2-yr and 4-yr training with access to continuing and technical education will be sufficient for many of the future positions in nanotechnology, nanomanufacturing, and beyond.                                                                                                             

Previous estimates stated that 6 million nanotechnology jobs will be needed by 2020, with 2 million of those jobs in the United States (Roco, Mirkin, and Hersam 2010). According to the U.S. News/Raytheon analysis, the number of STEM jobs increased 20 percent between 2000 and 2014. Looking ahead, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that between 2012 and 2022, employment in occupations that NSF classifies as science and engineering (S&E) will increase 15 percent. To find out about nanotechnology programs at college and graduate levels, see College and Graduate Programs. If you are interested in 2-year degrees or training programs, see Associate Degrees, Certificates, & Job Info.