Nanotechnology is often mentioned as the tool that will dramatically alter the future.

While its benefits are still years away from reaching the public, scientists hope nanotechnology — the manipulation of atoms as raw materials — will eventually live up to the hype it’s received for its potential to advance medicine, electronics and manufacturing.

From helping diagnose diseases more accurately to keeping computers running more smoothly, the manipulation of atoms is a challenge with a whole new set of rules. The scientists who work with these tiniest of raw materials see a world just as mesmerizing as those who study the farthest reaches of outer space.

“You would never have thought it possible to pick up an atom and actually move it a few atomic diameters away,” said physicist Joseph Stroscio. “It is equivalent to reaching out to the planets and being able to touch a planet and move it from one orbit to another.”

Stroscio and Robert Celotta are among physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who work on the ground floor of nanotechnology. It’s a small, hard-to-imagine world.

A nanometer, one of the measures often used by scientists doing research in the field, is one-billionth of a meter. It takes about 400,000 atoms stacked together to form the width of a human hair.

More here.