Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter, for practical purposes, on the scale of atoms and molecules—called nanoscale. One way to view nanotechnology is not as an industry in its own right but rather as a general-purpose technology, like electricity and computing, that is used in many industries: basic chemicals, cosmetics, agriculture, food manufacturing, electronics, instrumentation, bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and many others.

On the other hand, nanotechnology can be viewed as an industry if the focus is kept on activities that advance the knowledge of nanoscale materials and how they can be used. People in many occupations do this kind of research and development work. Scientists and technicians are uncovering the principles that govern the properties of materials at nanoscale. They have discovered the principles of nanoscale building blocks—cubes, spheres, sheets, and tubes—and how to assemble these parts or coax them to assemble themselves. They are also increasing our understanding of how to mimic the processes that living things accomplish at nanoscale. These research findings are being applied to solve practical problems by engineers and engineering technicians. Properties such as electrical conductivity, water resistance, catalysis (sparking a chemical reaction), emission of light, and tensile strength can be put to countless uses in industrial products and processes.

News and projections about the dollar value of the industry are often distorted by being based on the total sales figures for products containing nanomaterials rather than solely on the value of these component materials. For example, a can of paint priced at several dollars may incorporate only a few cents' worth of nanoparticle pigments. Also these sales figures apply to industries that use nanoenhanced products and do not measure the volume of business in the nanotechnology knowledge industry itself.

Nevertheless, to appreciate the growing impact...