Peer Into the Wide World of Nanotech

Nanotechnologies are changing our world from communications to medicine.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
Photo Credits: Jacobs School of Engineering, University of California, San Diego

Cloaked in a red blood cell sheath, more than 3,000 of these toxin-hungry nanosponges can slide through the bloodstream on the prowl for poisonous material.

When fully loaded, the sponges travel to the liver for disposal. Sucking up everything from snake venom to flesh-eating bacteria, the sponges may help relieve the growing challenge of antibiotic resistance. Recent studies have shown the sponges can also target nerve agents and may have applications in cancer therapy.

Photo Credits: Vincent Rotello, Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Drug cocktails – mixtures of multiple drugs – are powerful therapeutic tools.

When gold nanoparticles combine with red, blue and green glowing proteins, as in this sensor, it’s possible to discern drug-induced physical and chemical changes on a cell’s surface. These changes generate patterns associated with specific drugs. Using the sensor, drug companies can screen individual drug compounds in minutes rather than months, determining which are most effective.

Beyond the pharmacy, the sensor could also help classify tens of thousands of commercial chemicals that lack toxicity data.^1

^1Rana, S. et al. Nat. Nanotechnol. 2015, 10, 65-69.

Photo Credits: Stefan Preble, Rochester Institute of Technology

Careening through hairpin turns and racing down straightaways, light packets called photons travel the distance in this nanoscale photonic circuit.

By embedding lasers a few nanometers in diameter in silicon, developers can fabricate the circuits using techniques already in place in the chip-making industry. Ultra-small devices that harness light, such as these, offer the possibility of transmitting data and manipulating very large numbers at speeds and capacities that electronic devices can’t achieve.

Photo Credits: Peter Allen

Say bye-bye to bulky, curved lenses like those found in cameras and hello to the flat lens.

Made of tiny pillars of titanium dioxide roughly 600 nanometers tall, these lenses can focus light to produce images with the same resolution as conventional lenses 100,000 times larger — or about 6 centimeters in diameter. Their light weight makes them ideal for applications from wearable optics applications to space telescopes.

As these images have shown, there really is still plenty of room for new approaches and applications in nanotechnology and NSF is especially eager to engage the next generation of researchers in this exciting field.

All budding scientists and superhero fans should check out NSF’s Generation Nano competition for high school students. A creative spark is the driver for the best scientific ideas and NSF will continue to provide researchers with the tools, training and exploration platform they need to transform their ideas into tomorrow’s reality.

The images in this National Science Foundation gallery are copyrighted and may be used only for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial purposes. Credits must be provided.

Photo Credits: Lori K. Sanders, Michael Wehner, Ryan L. Truby, Harvard University

Cuddle-worthy, this 20-millimeter “octobot” scoots around powered by gases and liquids.

The creature’s soft exterior remains pliable thanks to a matrix of silica nanoparticles. It can run for up to eight minutes on 1-milliliter of hydrogen peroxide, the same liquid used around the house to clean and disinfect. This is the first soft robot to roam free, unfettered by rigid robotic controls and power sources.

Photo Credits:  Pramod Reddy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

These glowing mounds of silica, the same material found in sand, hover a nanometer above another piece of silica.

The mounds stretch across the 450-nanometer diameter tip of a custom-built scanning thermal microscopy probe used to measure how fast heat flows between two surfaces. In this case, heat is transferred between the two surfaces 10,000 times faster than at larger dimensions. Understanding how heat behaves in ultra-small gaps is critical for advancing next-generation data storage and devices that convert heat directly into electricity.

Photo Credits: J. Zhu, B. Peng, S.K. Ozdemir, L. Yang, Electrical and Systems Engineering Department, Washington University in St. Louis

In 1959, the physicist Richard Feynman delivered his now famous lecture “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” about an emerging field of study where atoms could be arranged one by one and wires just 10 to 100 atoms wide would buzz with data. Some of Feynman’s astonishing vision of nanotechnology has been realized with the help of investment from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A quarter-century ago, NSF was the first agency to provide funding for nanoscience and engineering projects. Since then, the investment has grown to approximately $10 billion.1 NSF supports nano-oriented centers and networks across the country to discover the fundamental mechanisms driving activity at extremely tiny dimensions. Beyond funding, NSF has been a prime force helping coordinate U.S. nanotechnology policy. These efforts have led to the nation holding the top spot in the field worldwide.

The following images capture the beauty of a world measured in atoms rather than inches, made visible with specialized microscopes and fabrication techniques and all made possible with NSF funding.

Pictured here: A microlaser, roughly the diameter of a human hair, counts individual nanoparticles as they land on a ring.

To learn more, go to

Photo Credits: Xudong Wang, University of Wisconsin-Madison

It doesn’t seem like a tower of bliss but in nano-lingo, this mod-looking screw results from “the wedding cake growth mechanism.” Understanding this process enables developers of flat-tipped nanowires to improve the design of these structures so that they can enhance a range of devices from sensors to batteries.

Photo Credits: Yuris Dzenis

What happens when you blast polymer solution into high electric fields? These wispy fibers.

But don’t let their delicate profile deceive you. They’re up to 10-times stronger and tougher than commercial fibers. The key to this robustness is a diameter less than 250 nanometers. Such fibers could improve combat and police gear, as well as aerospace structures.

Photo Credits: Adnan Korkmaz

While these could be plantings in a Crayola garden, they’re actually gold nanowires about as tall as a human red blood cell is wide.

The image, captured by a scanning electron microscope, was taken as the nanowires grew on silicon at room temperature. Perfecting such fabrication techniques will allow researchers to enhance silicon-based electronics to increase their speed and robustness. It will also advance their use as sensors to monitor blood sugar and pressure and to detect DNA.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.