Nanoscience at its most basic level has been practiced for thousands of years. Craft-workers did not have a scientific understanding of the properties of nanomaterials, but they knew that small particles of various substances exhibited properties that were different than those of the same substance with a larger particle size. Through trial and error, they mixed these nanoparticles with other substances to create finished products that had unique properties. One example are the beautiful stained glass windows in European churches that were created from the 6th through 15th centuries. Craft-workers incorporated nanoparticles of gold chloride and other metal oxides and chlorides to create the vivid colors found in the windows.
In the mid-1800s, the seeds of a modern understanding of nanotechnology were planted. In 1857, the English scientist Michael Faraday recognized that colloidal gold particles were able to create a ruby-red color in liquids and stained glass because of their minute size.
It took another 100 years before scientists began to consider the real possibility of developing applied technological uses for nanoparticles. In 1959, 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 encouraged the scientific community to undertake what became known as nanoengineering.
In the 1980s, 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) fueled scientific exploration in nanoscience. In the 1990s, the first commercial nanotechnology companies were founded and began making consumer products that were comprised of nanoparticles. (Today, U.S. companies lead the world in nanotechnology patents, accounting for more than 50 percent of all patent applications and grants, according to Wanted Analytics, a data analytics firm.)
More than 1,200 companies, government laboratories, universities, and other organizations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia are involved in nanotechnology research, development, and commercialization, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. In addition, more than 1,827 nanotechnology-based consumer products were available by May of 2016.
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