Nanotechnology’s impact will one day rival that of electricity, transistors, antibiotics, and the Internet — thanks in part to MIT research.

“There is increasing recognition that we can apply our knowledge of the very small to solve some of the world’s very big problems,” says Ian Waitz, Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering. “Very important engineering challenges and domains — such as energy, the environment, and health care — will benefit from nano-science and -technology.”

Nanotechnology is enabling MIT researchers to develop, for example, substantially more effective and inexpensive solar cells; greener, more sustainable materials for infrastructure; tiny biomedical sensors that can monitor health in real time; and electronic devices that could greatly increase computing power using minimal energy. And a great adventure is now under way at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT as the science of cancer is joined with the engineering of nanoparticles and new materials to help create new knowledge about cancer and new treatments.

Since it emerged as a field roughly 25 years ago, nanotechnology — which harnesses the remarkable properties of matter at the scale of billionths of a meter — has been heralded for its potential to revolutionize materials, manufacturing, energy, security, and health care. Nano-enhanced materials are already used in hundreds of products — sunscreen, sports equipment, and surface coatings for vehicles, among others. And semiconductor manufacturers have fabricated nanoscale components to push the boundaries of chip efficiency for over a decade.

But the truly transformative advances that nanotechnology promises — from large-scale storage and conversion of renewable energy, to staggeringly powerful quantum computers, to sophisticated biomedical implants that monitor and treat disease — are still years if not decades away.

Those types of advances require the ability to precisely assemble and manipulate matter at the atomic level — in other words, “from the bottom up. And that remains very difficult,” says Marc Kastner, Dean of MIT’s School of Science. To grasp the challenges posed by the nanoscale, consider that the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of Earth. The researchers profiled in this issue are leading science’s effort to overcome those challenges.

“To do anything outstanding in this field, you need people who really understand chemistry, physics, and engineering,” says Kastner. “There are very few institutions in the world that have the breadth and depth of expertise that MIT has in these areas.”

Kastner and Waitz say that nanotechnology will be key to a new era in manufacturing that could fuel a 21st-century industrial revolution. With MIT President Susan Hockfield, whom the Obama administration recently appointed co-chair of its Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, they are positioning MIT to lead this new era.

Waitz says he is awed by the pace of nanotechnological innovation at MIT. “I find it amazing that we’re engineering things at that scale, and then using them to solve very challenging problems. I’m excited about the prospects for the ‘world of the small.’”

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