Cool Companies: Alberta's Nanotechnology & Advanced Materials 2009

What is Nanotechnology?

Excerpt from Cool Companies

Read PDF version that appeared in the Cool Companies industry guide [PDF]


Nanotechnology means manipulating and controlling atoms and molecules to create useful materials, devices and systems that have new and different properties from what we normally see in our everyday world.

  • Tiny: These nanotechnology materials, devices and systems are the smallest man-made objects ever created. In at least one dimension, they measure less than 100 nanometers (nm). Put into context, 10 hydrogen atoms lined up would be 1 nm. One micron is equivalent to 1000 nm. An eyelash is about 100,000 nm wide.
  • Unusual: It is because of their tiny size that nanoscale materials, devices and systems have new and different properties; at the nanoscale, atoms obey a different set of laws of physics called quantum mechanics.
  • Next big thing: Like electricity, computers and lasers before it, nanotechnology is expected to offer great improvements in almost every facet of life. Nanotechnology has already created billion-dollar markets for devices like ink-jet printer heads and accelerometers for airbags in automobiles. Nanotechnology is expected to lead us to products we have not imagined. One example might be an iPod or Blackberry that can fix itself if dropped. Since it has applications across many fields including chemistry, biology and physics, nanotechnology is a general purpose technology.  




Nanoparticles are clumps of atoms or molecules that are less than 100 nm on one side. Nanoparticles are typically less than 10 nm. More p.11-13, 17, 20-22, 25, 26, 29, 33, 42-45.

MEMS (pronounced “memz”) is an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products. MEMS stands for Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems. MEMS (pictured above on the left and right) are tiny 3D devices that combine mechanical components with integrated electronic circuits. The most popular MEMS devices today are sensors, lab on a chip devices and optical switches. MEMS are made on silicon wafers like computer chips. They have micron and sub-micron sized features, as pictured in the middle above. A MEMS chip can be a few millimeters to a few centimeters in size. More p.10, 18, 20, 21, 24, 28, 32, 33, 44, 45.



Lab on a Chip

A lab on a chip is a type of MEMS that integrates multiple laboratory functions on a single chip. It requires extremely small fluid volumes. Pictured above are channels on a MEMS that fluid travel through. More p.14, 18, 28, 43.

 Carbon Nanotubes

Shaped as a hollow hexagonal chicken wire tube made of carbon atoms, carbon nanotubes (p.50) are among the stiffest and strongest fibers known. It is 100 times stronger than steel but just a sixth of the weight. Pictured are multi-walled carbon nanotubes.



and Bunny Suits

MEMS and other nanotechnology materials, devices and systems are manufactured in a cleanroom. A cleanroom environment reduces impurities in the air such as dust that can be destructive to this technology. Cleanrooms are 10,000 times cleaner than a hospital operating room. People who work in clean rooms must wear special protective clothing called “bunny suits” that prevent human skin and hair particles from entering the room’s atmosphere.




Today's Nanotechnology Products

Nanotechnology is already all around us. Here are some examples:
• Airbags: deploy airbags when a crash occurs
• Ink-jet printer heads: Its 2006 market size was $6 billion representing 28% of all MEMS sold (source:
• Video games: detect game controller motion, such as in Nintendo’s Wii
• Clothing: some stain-resistant and water-repellent pants
• Sunscreen: many sunscreens contain nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
• Pacemakers: help the heart beat
• Tennis rackets: Babolat was the first company to use carbon nanotubes to reinforce key areas of the racquet, adding ease of play and comfort when hitting for the player
• Washing machines: LG makes a washing machine with a drum covered with nano-silver particles to ensure better sterilization of clothes
• Cell phones: processes signals
• Hearing aids: smaller than past hearing aids
• LCD displays: In 2005, Motorola Labs unveiled the first ever working color video display based on carbon nanotubes