Nano is the prefix for units that are 10-9 in dimension. The nanoscale is normally defined as lying between 1 nanometer (nm) and 100 nm. Things on the nanoscale are very tiny—so tiny that they are not visible to the human eye. When compared to other scales of measurement, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. It’s hard to imagine just how small objects measured in nanometers are. Here are some examples:


  • A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
  • A human hair is from 40,000 to 100,000 nanometers thick.
  • A fingernail grows about one nanometer in one second.
  • One inch equals 25.4 million nanometers.
  • The head of a pin is 1 million nanometers across.


One important thing to know about things at the nanoscale is that the properties of many materials this small start to behave in different ways—they take on interesting and useful properties.  Sometimes they are stronger, more resilient, lighter, or more durable.  Scientists use specialized methods to manufacture objects in this nano size range.


The images in the Around the House category include objects that might be found in any home. Every year, people who own scanning electron microscopes from microscope-maker FEI enter their best microscopic images in the FEI Image Contest. The images in this collection are from that contest. 


About Scale

Learn how to measure the size of the objects in this collection. Click and drag to move the image in order to see the very bottom—or download the image—and note the scale bar. This bar will be different for every image. The scale is noted most often in micrometers (μm), but sometimes in millimeters (mm) or nanometers (nm). These scale bars are used much like the scale bars on maps—where one inch might equal 100 miles, for example. Use a piece of paper, a ruler, or other measuring device to determine the size of the object according to the scale on the image. Note that the scale might be indicated in millimeters, micrometers, or nanometers. Then list the images on paper, or place downloaded images in order, according to size—from largest to smallest.


About Electron Microscope Images

All images taken with electron microscopes are black and white because of the absence of light in the process. Color is added in post-processing phases.

When enlarging or cropping images with scale bars, such as the microscopic images in this collection, be sure to maintain the original aspect ratio of the image—ensuring that everything in the image is reduced or enlarged proportionally.

  • The first use of nanotechnology actually happened in the 4th century when Romans made a cup out of a special glass called dichroic glass. The maker of the cup knew that adding tiny particles of gold and silver in the manufacturing of the cup caused it to turn a different color when light shone through it. They didn’t know why this happened—and they certainly didn’t know what nanotechnology was. But they were observing the different ways materials act at the nanoscale.
  • Nanotechnology as we now know it began about 30 years ago, when we were able to create tools that could show us things and allow us to manipulate things on the nanoscale.
  • Today, some scientists work in factories called fabrication facilities where they use nanotechnology to develop materials that help make car parts stronger, pants and shirts that release doses of medicine into a human body, or sunscreens that protect us better from harmful rays.
  • Almost all high-performance electronic devices manufactured in the past decade use some nanomaterials. Nanotechnology helps build new transistor structures and interconnects for the fastest, most advanced computing chips.

metric unit of measurement, equal to about .34 inch.


a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter—also called micron.


a unit of length equal to 11000 meter.


(nm) billionth of a meter.


length scale whose relevant unit of measurement is the nanometer (nm), or a billionth of a meter. Also called the nanoscopic scale.


distinctive relative size, extent, or degree.

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This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-0840250. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.