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Instrumentation and Characterization

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“To achieve the promise of nanotechnology—an area that may yield the most important technological innovations of the first quarter of the 21st century—major innovations in measurement science and measurement technology are required.”  This quote, from the 2006 NIST Report, An Assessment of the United States Measurement System: Addressing Measurement Barriers to Accelerate Innovation[1], clearly states the criticality of instrumentation and characterization to the commercial success and implementation of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is expected to contribute revolutionary advances across the technology/industry spectrum, including new medical diagnostics and therapeutics, advanced water treatment technologies, new food and agriculture technologies, and novel methods for energy production and storage--some of the most pressing societal needs of today and tomorrow. The potential economic and human impacts of such applications are enormous. However, a strong measurement and standards infrastructure to support the realization of these advances is yet to emerge.

Notably, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategic Plan issued in December 2007 identifies Instrumentation Research, Metrology, and Standards for Nanotechnology as one of the eight major program component areas of the NNI[2]. Additionally, the report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Assessment and Recommendations of the National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel, April 2008, listed Standards Development as one of 6 key recommendations to the President to enhance the National Nanotechnology Initiative[3]. Another of the 6 key focus areas, Environmental, Health, and Safety Implications, is closely linked to, and requires development of measurement tools and related standards.


Technology innovation begins with applied research and discovery and, when successful, leads to scale-up and production, market placement, and finally end-user implementation. Instrumentation and characterization methods (and associated measurement standards) are necessary for each of these stages of innovation. For the applied research and discovery stage, accepted instrumentation and characterization protocol is necessary for interpreting and communicating the results of research. At the other end of the innovation process, end-user acceptance of new products requires test and measurement capabilities to characterize and verify product performance criteria.

The 2006 NIST Assessment of the United States Measurement System[4] looked at measurement needs across 11 different technology sectors, including building and construction, healthcare, defense, electronics, and chemicals. Nanotechnology, also one of the 11 sectors assessed, was found to be unique in several notable aspects. It showed an unusually high need for new measurement instrumentation advances--in order to provide accurate characterization of chemical, physical, and biological material and device properties and processes at the nanometer scale. Interestingly, the assessment also revealed that the nanotechnology sector is unique in that it has a fundamental need to understand and identify which key parameters should be measured. This latter point underscores the early-stage nature of nanotechnology in terms of development of instrumentation and characterization methods.


Zeiss Orion Helium ion Microscope
ORION Plus Helium Ion Microscope from Carl Zeiss SMT Inc.
Instrumentation for measurement and characterization of nanomaterials and processes is critically important due to one distinguishing feature of the nano realm--properties of materials at the nanoscale, where quantum and surface effects can dominate, differ fundamentally from the properties measured for bulk materials[5]. Yet the challenge is that characterization of properties and performance, and the imaging of structures and surfaces for nanomaterials and devices is exceedingly difficult.

Three examples are demonstrate both the difficulty and progress toward nanoscale instrumentation and characterization. The first describes micro instrumentation for characterizing thermoelectric properties of nanomaterials[6]; second is a mass spectrometry method for analyzing air nanoparticulates[7]; and third is the development and commercial introduction of Helium Ion Microscopy[8].

Instrumentation for characterization of nanomaterials, processes, and devices can be broadly categorized as Visualization Tools and Measurement Tools. Examples of Nano Visualization Tools include Scanning Tunneling Microscopes, Atomic Force Microscopes, Transmission or Scanning Electron Microscopes, and most recently, the introduction of Scanning Helium Ion Microscopes. Nano Measurement Tools include a variety of spectroscopic techniques (absorption, emission, scattering, electron, infrared, Raman, X-Ray fluorescence, electron spin resonance, etc.), as well as chemical and magnetic nanoprobes, or optical nanoprobes using quantum dots. A variety of Nano Fabrication Tools can be considered for both manufacturing and characterization scenarios.  These include nanomanipulators and nanopositioners, laser tweezers, lithographics tools, and modeling tools.

In Appendix C of the 2006 NIST Assessment of the United States Measurement System[9], the topic of nanotechnology was assessed to identify specific measurement needs relative to 10 published industry roadmaps relating to nanotechnology. A total of 49 measurement needs were identified. Nearly half of those needs were for characterization tools, which dealt with nearly every property of nanomaterials. The objectives of these characterization needs were primarily to understand the link between properties, performance/functionality, and applications. Another important objective was to characterize and understand the environmental and biological impacts of nanomaterials. The measurement needs covered the following:

Standards, protocols, and reference materials

  • Measurement for design and synthesis of nanomaterials
  • Interface and surface characterization
  • Electronics properties
  • Nanomaterials mechanics
  • Biological compatibility
  • Nanoparticle characterization, including nanoparticles in soil, air and water
  • Metrology for nanodevices, including sensors, nanodevices for biological applications, and medical diagnostics


Virtually every player in the nanotechnology space is involved in instrumentation and/or characterization of nano materials, processes and devices, either from the characterization needs perspective and/or from the instrumentation/methods development perspective. Much of the work being done by the federal government and it's various research centers is described under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which operates on a cross-agency basis and provides research funding to a number of government laboratories and universities. In addition, many university nanotechnology research efforts receive funding from state and private entities, including the University of Albany NanoTech Complex and College for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, for example.

Well over 100 companies are directly involved in nanotechnology characterization and measurement, for instrumentation and tools as well as services. Refer to the Resources section below for additional insights, listings, and directories.


Nanotechnology remains a bright prospect for future innovation across practically every industry and technology sector, with the potential to address many of the world’s most pressing needs.  Instrumentation and characterization for nanotechnology measurement and standards remains an area with many immediate needs that, until adequately addressed, will continue to thwart the realization of the revolutionary benefits of nanotechnology.  From a research and funding perspective, these needs are well recognized.  Government and university measurement technology developers and providers will remain an important link in the innovation process, especially when they are closely linked to applied research and applications and to end-user communities. 


Listing of the government and university laboratory National Nanotechnology Initiative research centers.

Instrumentation and Metrology for Nanotechnology, Report of the National Nanotechnology Initiative Workshop, January 27-29, 2004, Gaithersburg, MD

Small Times Directory & Buyers Guide: Characterization/Analysis Instrumentation

Nanotechnology Tool Makers & Service Providers

Published market research studies available for purchase include:

  • Nano Tools, Global Industry Analysts, June 2006
  • Nanotech Tools, Freedonia Group, August 2004
  • Tools and Instrumentation for Nanotechnology, BCC Research, April 2004
Image reused with permission from Carl Zeiss SMT Inc.

[2]National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategic Plan, December 2007, National Science and Technology Council, Committee on Technology, Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology

[5]Nanotechnology and the Need for Risk Governance, J. Nanoparticle Research, April 2006

[6]Micro instrumentation for characterizing thermoelectric properties of nanomaterials, Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering, Jan. 2005

[7]ANALYZING AIR NANOPARTICULATES, Chemical & Engineering News; 2/27/2006

[8]Helium-Ion Microscopy, Photonics Spectra, August 2007

InterNano Taxonomy: