Nanotechnology is already very common in nature and can be found in all manner of natural objects including the enamel in your teeth and non-reflective eyes in moths. Nano-forces are what allows a spider to carry more than 170 times its own body weight and means geckos can hang upside down from flat sheets of glass.
The human world is a little way behind nature in the use of nanotechnology but catching up fast, tenth century church builders used gold and silver nanoparticles to prepare stained glass windows although they may not quite have understood the science behind what they were doing! Nowadays the potential of nanotechnologies is immense and their use is widespread. Below are some common forms of nanoparticles and the type of things they are used for in everyday life.
C60 (or buckminsterfullerene to give it its full name) is maybe the most famous of the nanoparticles and its discovery and subsequent synthesis led to Harry Kroto, Rick Smalley and Robert Curl being awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The discovery was somewhat serendipitous as the team were originally attempting to study unstable molecules floating around in interstellar space but instead happened upon something totally unexpected, namely a very stable form which, from mass experiments, they knew contained precisely 60 carbon atoms. The exact three-dimensional structure of this mythical species was the subject of great speculation but was eventually discovered thanks to some jelly sweets, cocktail sticks and a some paper shapes. The elegant structure consists of a sphere made out of 12 pentagons interlocking 20 hexagons to make a ball, much like a modern day football.
Buckminsterfullerene and other derivatives including C70 are collectively known as the "fullerenes" and are known for their strength and lightness. If you fire fullerenes at a steel plate at 25000 km/h then they just bounce off and if compressed to 70% of their original size then they become twice as hard as diamond. Their potential has not yet been fully realised but potential applications include carriers for drug molecules, superconductors, lubricants and catalysts
Carbon nanotubes are sheets of graphite rolled up into cylinders and sometimes capped by a half-fullerene. First discovered by Ijima in 1991 they represent a new era in materials science.With 100 times the strength of steel at only one-sixth of the weight they are incredibly strong and were once described by Richard Smalley (of buckyball fame) as "in one direction...the strongest damn thing you'll ever make in the universe". They can conduct heat and electricity better than most metals and thus readily lend themselves to a wide variety of applications including flat panel displays, lighting, fuel cells and electronics.
Nanoparticles is a diverse term covering any particulate which is under 100nm in size. Materials range from metals, minerals or a combination of several entities. Nanoparticles represent the most commercial applications of nanotechnology thus far and have found uses in everything from medicine to increasing the shelf-life of food. Examples include: