A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. Nanoscale can refer to things less than 100 nanometres in size, or to materials so small that they behave differently to normal.

What is a nanometre?

Your fingernails grow about a nanometre every second. That means they grow 86,400 nanometres in a day, but that’s still too small for you to notice a difference.

Look at it another way. If a nanometre was as long as your foot, a centimetre would be the distance from New Zealand to Australia.

A nanometre is very, very small – there are a million of them in a millimetre.

‘Nano’ means ‘a billionth’ (a billion is a thousand million), so:

  • a nanometre is a billionth of a metre
  • a nanosecond is a billionth of a second.

Compare a nanometre with some measurements you are more familiar with:

  • a metre
  • a centimetre (a hundredth of a metre)
  • a millimetre (a thousandth of a metre)
  • a micrometre (a millionth of a metre)

As part of the International System of Units (SI), the standard symbol for nanometre is nm.

You can measure metres, centimetres and millimetres with a ruler, but measuring anything smaller than that is harder. In fact, it is hard trying to even imagine something as small as a billionth of a metre. It helps if you compare things of different sizes.

The head of a pin

1,000,000 nm across

You can see these with your eyes unaided

The page of a book

100,000 nm thick

A human hair

40,000 nm thick

A red blood cell

7000 nm across

You can see these using a light microscope


1000–10 000 nm

Transistor on latest computer chips

(there are up to 100 million of them)

100 nm

You need an electron microscope or other device to see these

DNA molecule

2 nm wide

Most atoms

0.1–0.2 nm

10 hydrogen atoms side by side

1 nm long

What is nanoscale?

There is no fixed definition for what nanoscale is, but there are a couple of things that are very important – small size and different properties.

Nanoparticle size

At least one dimension (height, length or depth) is less than 100 nm:

  • A nanotube can be much longer than 100 nm, but it is still called a nanoparticle because it is only about 3 nm wide.
  • A very thin film of material can be many centimetres wide, but if it is less than 100 nm thick, it is still called a nanofilm.

This definition of nanoscale tends to be used by people who create tiny devices such as pumps and motors out of a few atoms, or by people who deal with very thin surface coatings.

Nature of science

In science, most measurements have a precise definition. Some other scientific terms are not so well defined. A nanometre is a measurement – it is clearly defined as a billionth of a metre. On the other hand, although nanoscale is a scientific term, it means different things to different people.

Many nanoparticles are ball-shaped, so all dimensions are small.

Nanoparticle properties

To many scientists, things are at the nanoscale if they are so small that they display different properties to the large scale material. This mostly happens when particles are only a few nanometres across.

For example, you may know that water boils at 100ºC (at a pressure of 1 atmosphere), but that is only true for large amounts of water. A drop of water only 5 nm across boils at 95.9ºC.

One nanoparticle can behave differently to another nanoparticle even if it is only slightly a different size. It may be a different colour, it may have a different melting point, or it may conduct electricity differently.

So, there is more than one definition of what is meant by nanoscale. Learning to understand and make use of these different properties of matter at the nanoscale is what nanoscience is about.

Useful links

A pictorial view of powers of 10.

Cell size and scale interactive.

Scale of the Universe interactive.

Dr Michelle Dickinson explains what nano is.

    Published 28 May 2008, Updated 10 April 2014