The first observations and size measurements of nano-particles were made during the first decade of the 20th century. They are mostly associated with the name of Zsigmondy who made detailed studies of gold sols and other nanomaterials with sizes down to 10 nm and less. He published a book in 1914. He used ultramicroscope that employs a dark field method for seeing particles with sizes much less than light wavelength.
There are traditional techniques developed during 20th century in Interface and Colloid Science for characterizing nanomaterials. These are widely used for first generation passive nanomaterials specified in the next section.
These methods include several different techniques for characterizing particle size distribution. This characterization is imperative because many materials that are expected to be nano-sized are actually aggregated in solutions. Some of methods are based on light scattering. Other apply ultrasound, such as ultrasound attenuation spectroscopy for testing concentrated nano-dispersions and microemulsions.
There is also a group of traditional techniques for characterizing surface charge or zeta potential of nano-particles in solutions. This information is required for proper system stabilzation, preventing its aggregation or flocculation. These methods include microelectrophoresis, electrophoretic light scattering and electroacoustics. The last one, for instance colloid vibration current method is suitable for characterizing concentrated systems.
Next group of nanotechnological techniques include those used for fabrication of nanowires, those used in semiconductor fabrication such as deep ultraviolet lithography, electron beam lithography, focused ion beam machining, nanoimprint lithography, atomic layer deposition, and molecular vapor deposition, and further including molecular self-assembly techniques such as those employing di-block copolymers. However, all of these techniques preceded the nanotech era, and are extensions in the development of scientific advancements rather than techniques which were devised with the sole purpose of creating nanotechnology and which were results of nanotechnology research.
There are several important modern developments. The atomic force microscope (AFM) and the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) are two early versions of scanning probes that launched nanotechnology. There are other types of scanning probe microscopy, all flowing from the ideas of the scanning confocal microscope developed by Marvin Minsky in 1961 and the scanning acoustic microscope (SAM) developed by Calvin Quate and coworkers in the 1970s, that made it possible to see structures at the nanoscale. The tip of a scanning probe can also be used to manipulate nanostructures (a process called positional assembly). Feature-oriented scanning-positioning methodology suggested by Rostislav Lapshin appears to be a promising way to implement these nanomanipulations in automatic mode. However, this is still a slow process because of low scanning velocity of the microscope. Various techniques of nanolithography such as dip pen nanolithography, electron beam lithography or nanoimprint lithography were also developed. Lithography is a top-down fabrication technique where a bulk material is reduced in size to nanoscale pattern.
The top-down approach anticipates nanodevices that must be built piece by piece in stages, much as manufactured items are made. Scanning probe microscopy is an important technique both for characterization and synthesis of nanomaterials. Atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes can be used to look at surfaces and to move atoms around. By designing different tips for these microscopes, they can be used for carving out structures on surfaces and to help guide self-assembling structures. By using, for example, feature-oriented scanning-positioning approach, atoms can be moved around on a surface with scanning probe microscopy techniques. At present, it is expensive and time-consuming for mass production but very suitable for laboratory experimentation.
In contrast, bottom-up techniques build or grow larger structures atom by atom or molecule by molecule. These techniques include chemical synthesis, self-assembly and positional assembly. Another variation of the bottom-up approach is molecular beam epitaxy or MBE. Researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories like John R. Arthur. Alfred Y. Cho, and Art C. Gossard developed and implemented MBE as a research tool in the late 1960s and 1970s. Samples made by MBE were key to the discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect for which the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded. MBE allows scientists to lay down atomically-precise layers of atoms and, in the process, build up complex structures. Important for research on semiconductors, MBE is also widely used to make samples and devices for the newly emerging field of spintronics.
Newer techniques such as Dual Polarisation Interferometry are enabling scientists to measure quantitatively the molecular interactions that take place at the nano-scale.However, new therapeutic products, based on responsive nanomaterials, such as the ultradeformable, stress-sensitive Transfersome vesicles, are under development and already approved for human use in some countries.