Within the next 20 years, combining nanotechnology with devices that print in three dimensions could bring about a revolution in manufacturing. Instead of assembling electronic goods from many separate components, we might instead simply print a number of different products from a single material, or if the product was more complex, use different "cartridges" in the same way that colour printing is different from black and white. Looking even further into the future self-healing materials may one day be used in surgical implants, while advances in "quantum" computers could pave the way for artificial intelligence.
Because nanotechnology is so novel and so powerful, many people worry about its unknown risks and potential dangers.
"The risk most talked about is the ability of nanotech carbon tubes to potentially cause asbestosis-type illnesses," says Mike Childs, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth. "There are concerns that the long-term effects of nanomaterials in the environment and in the human body have not been studied enough yet, and that perhaps we should be more cautious about adding them to consumer products."
Then there is the effect on the environment. Nanotechnology could both improve and worsen environmental problems.
"At the moment, the manufacture of nanoparticles is very energy intensive," says Childs. "But nanotech could make solar panels more efficient and could be vital in making step-changes in energy storage technologies."
Then there are concerns that sound more like a science-fiction film. Larry Millstein, president of the Foresight Institute, says: "Self-replication has given rise to many interesting and imaginative scenarios, some of which are alarming." These scenarios include a swarm of all-consuming, self-replicating nanorobots. However, Millstein emphasises that these machines do not currently exist and that the fear is not of nanotechnology itself, but of its potential to enable the construction of such "nanobots".