When you hear the word "nanotechnology," what springs to mind? Tiny robots that look like bugs? A world overrun with gray goo? Futuristic visions of microscopic creations swimming through your bloodstream to scan for infection? While most of us have heard about the diminutive science of nanotechnology, it's not always clear what all this small stuff is about.
The first confusing thing about nanotechnology is that it's not a particular school of science. It refers to any of the sciences, when performed on a given scale. In practice, the prefix "nano" refers to a size of materials at which regular laws of physics break down and quantum effects (or nanoeffects) take over: Gravity is less important, and electromagnetic energy works differently.
If that sounds crazy, think about it this way: A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and the effects of gravity and electromagnetism become relatively insignificant when dealing with anything less than one hundred nanometers in size. At that scale, the differences from the world we know are so drastic, they're almost unimaginable.
Nanotechnology is now being applied to construction materials. It's a relatively new science, but one that's already impacting the manufacture of building materials you're familiar with: glass, steel, concrete, coatings and even wood. Mixing nanotech particles with these materials produces an array of beneficial effects.
From making concrete and glass that's fire-protective, to giving strength to wood and steel at much lower densities, and even making our glass and cement self-cleaning, nanotechnology is helping us build a safer, cleaner and more efficient world.