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Nanosystems Engineers


The first mention of deliberately created and applied technological uses for nanoparticles occurred in 1959. Physics professor Richard Feynman of the California Institute of Technology gave a now-famous speech, “There is a Lot of Space Down There,” in which he challenged the scientific community to undertake what became known as nanoengineering. The term nanoengineering was actually not coined until 1974, when Japanese professor Norio Taniguchi used the term to describe precision machining of nanomaterials. In the 1980s, Dr. K. Eric Drexler, who is often described as “the founding father of nanotechnology,” explored and investigated the concepts and applications of nanotechnology in his 1981 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology.

We think of nanoengineering as a modern field, but basic nanoengineering has been practiced for thousands of years. Craft-workers in ancient times learned how to control matter at the tiniest scale to make beautiful pottery, waterproof clothing, and other goods. They didn’t have a scientific understanding of the physical principles governing those nanomaterials, but simply learned through trial and error the best methods to make these products.

One example of such a product is The Lycurgus Cup, which was created by Roman craft-workers in the 4th century A.D. The special glass (known as dichroic glass) in this stunning work of art changes color when lit from the front or behind because it contains traces of colloidal gold and silver. A colloid is a substance microscopically dispersed within another substance. (Visit to view photos of The Lycurgus Cup.) 

In the 1980s, several developments—including the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (1981), the discovery of nanocrystalline (1981), Buckminsterfullerene, and colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals (1985), and the invention of the atomic force microscope (1986)—allowed scientists to conduct extensive research in nanoscience and nanoengineering, prompting many scientific breakthroughs. By the early 1990s, the first commercial nanotechnology companies began to operate. Starting in 1999, consumer products making use of nanotechnology—such as wrinkle-and stain-resistant clothing, scratch-and-dent-resistant bumpers, deep-penetrating therapeutic cosmetics, improved displays for televisions and cell phones, and faster-charging batteries—began appearing in the marketplace. 

In 2000, the U.S. government created the National Nanotechnology Initiative to coordinate the relevant nanotechnology programs being funded by various agencies. Up to and including the 2017 federal budget, cumulative government investment through the initiative totaled almost $24 billion.

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