Nanotechnology can best be considered as a 'catch-all' description of activities at the level of atoms and molecules that have applications in the real world. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, that is, about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a human hair, or 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom.
An early promoter of the industrial applications of nanotechnology, Albert Franks, defined it as 'that area of science and technology where dimensions and tolerances in the range of 0.1nm to 100 nm play a critical role'. It encompasses precision engineering as well as electronics; electromechanical systems (eg 'lab-on-a-chip' devices) as well as mainstream biomedical applications in areas as diverse as gene therapy, drug delivery and novel drug discovery techniques.
Because nanotechnology has opened up new worlds of possibility, it has spawned a proliferation of new terminology - a kind of nanospeak to the uninitiated. For example, the two fundamentally different approaches to nanotechnology are graphically termed 'top down' and 'bottom up'. 'Top-down' refers to making nanoscale structures by machining and etching techniques, whereas 'bottom-up', or molecular nanotechnology, applies to building organic and inorganic structures atom-by-atom, or molecule-by-molecule. Top-down or bottom-up is a measure of the level of advancement of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology, as applied today, is still in the main at what may be considered the more primitive 'top-down' stage.
A breakthrough that may herald the beginning of the 'bottom-up' stage of nanotechnology has been the discovery of spinning molecular structures. These may open the door to realising the holy grail of power generation and controllable motion at the molecular level, with huge applications for medicine and information technology.
Another feature of nanotechnology is that it is the one area of research and development that is truly multidisciplinary. Research at the nanoscale is unified by the need to share knowledge on tools and techniques, as well as information on the physics affecting atomic and molecular interactions in this new realm. Materials scientists, mechanical and electronic engineers and medical researchers are now forming teams with biologists, physicists and chemists.