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The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative uses the term "nanotechnology" to describe:

  • Research and technology development aimed to work at atomic and molecular scales, in the length scale of approximately 1 - 100 nanometer range;
  • The ability to understand, create and use structures, devices and systems that have fundamentally new properties and functions because of their nanoscale structure;
  • The ability to control to see, measure and manipulate matter on the atomic scale to exploit those properties and functions.

"Nanotechnology stands out as a likely launch pad to a new technological era because it focuses on perhaps the final engineering scales people have yet to master," says a 1999 report: Nanotechnology: Shaping the World Atom by Atom, by the National Science and Technology Council. The ability to build structures molecule by molecule would allow scientists to create new structural materials 50 times stronger than steel of the same weight, making possible the construction of a Cadillac weighing 100 pounds, according to Ralph Merkle of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. It could also, he says in an article in MIT's Technology Review, "give us surgical instruments of such precision and deftness that they could operate on the cells and even molecules from which we are made."

Some of the methods necessary to build structures consisting of large numbers of precisely arranged atoms include molecular self-assembly, in which molecular building blocks assemble themselves in pre-designed ways. Using this technique, researchers have created carbon nanotubes with diameters of about one ten-thousandth of a human hair that can be used as miniature structural materials, electronic components and drug-delivery systems. Scientists also depend on such tools as Scanning Tunneling Microscopes and Scanning Probe Microscopes to build images on surfaces, manipulate atoms into miniature structures, or analyze the identities of atoms and molecules one atom at a time.