Nanotechnology is an extremely broad term, the definition of which varies from field to field. Most commonly, nanotechnology is defined as “…the understanding, control, and restructuring of matter on the order of nanometers (i.e., less than 100 nm) to create materials with fundamentally new properties and functions” [1]. There are two main types of approaches to nanotechnology: The “top-down” approach and the “bottom-up” approach. The “top-down” approach involves taking larger structures that are either reduced down in size until they reach the nano-scale, or are deconstructed into their composite parts. On the other hand, the “bottom-up” approach is where materials are constructed from the atomic or molecular components.

How nanotechnology is used in Civil Engineering

Nanotechnology has many applications in the engineering field, especially in the area of civil engineering. A vast number of materials can be enhanced by the use of nanotechnology, some of which include glass, concrete, and steel. Nanoparticles can also be used in coatings such as paints to give the coating “…self healing capabilities and corrosion protection under insulation. Since these coatings are hydrophobic and repel water from the metal pipe and can also protect metal from salt water attack.” [2].

Why this matters

The incorporation of nanotechnology in civil engineering and construction is immensely useful to the field. Nanotechnology can be used to increase the life of concrete, create fire-resistant materials such as steel, and give building materials qualities such as “self-healing” and “self-cleaning.” On a personal level, I am very interested in the design, construction, and engineering of buildings and other infrastructure. As a child I use to design and make buildings out of paper, and the idea of the design and construction of buildings has always been of interest to me. As a future engineer I would like to be able to do research on finding new materials to help create stronger, better, longer lasting buildings and structures. Nanotechnology can, and has revolutionized the way civil engineering is conducted by opening new possibilities for materials and is an important aspect to the field of civil engineering. It is for this reason that I believe that nanotechnology should be more widely incorporated into engineering curriculums around the country. Currently, only a few Colleges and Universities teach nanotechnology within their engineering programs, or even offer a degree in nanotechnology. This needs to be changed, especially for the field of civil engineering as nanotechnology is vital to the advancement of the field.


One of the most common and beneficial uses of nanotechnology in terms of civil engineering, is the use of it in concrete. Concrete “is a nanostructured, multi-phase, composite material that ages over time. It is composed of an amorphous phase, nanometer to micrometer size crystals, and bound water,” [1]. It is used in almost all construction, from roads, to bridges, to buildings. Concrete can be modified in numerous ways; one of which is to add nanoparticles to it. Most research done with nanoparticles is done with nano-silica, nano-titanium oxide, and some studies involving nano-iron, nano-alumina and nanoclay. These “nanoparticles can act as nuclei for cement phases, further promoting cement hydration due to their high reactivity, as nanoreinforcement, and as filler, densifying the microstructure and the ITZ, thereby, leading to a reduced porosity,” [1]. Each of the nanoparticles has a different on concrete. Nano-silica improves strength, resistance to water penetration, and helps control calcium leaching. Nano-titanium has been proven to assist in the “…self-cleaning of concrete and provides the additional benefit of helping to clean the environment,” [1]. Nano-iron has shown to give concrete self-sensing capabilities and improved it’s “…compressive and flexible strengths,” [1]. Other areas of research pertaining to nanotechnology in cement include hydrate hybridization, (which is the creation of “hybrid, organic, cementitious nanocomposites,” [1]), as well as the use of nanoreinforments, (carbon nanotubes and nanofibers). One example of how nanotechnology improved this vital construction material is when the engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology patented a method to increase the lifespan of concrete in 2009. In 2007, almost one quarter of all bridges in the country were defective or obsolete all together. The reasoning for this was the Chloride and sulfate ions would infiltrate the concrete and cause internal structural damage, weakening the concrete and causing cracks. The engineers at the NIST wanted to “…change the viscosity of the solution in the concrete at the microscale to reduce the speed at which chlorides and sulfates enter the concrete,” [3] in a project called “…viscosity enhancers reducing diffusion in concrete technology (VERDICT)” [3] in order to attempt to double the lifespan of concrete.


Steel is one of the most important building materials used today. One of the major problems of using steel however, is dealing with fatigue. “Fatigue is one of the significant issues that can lead to the structural failure of steel subject to cyclic loading,” [4]. Fatigue can occur at stresses that are lower than the yield stress of the steel and leads to a shortening of the steel’s life. The best way to reduce the fatigue is to add copper nanoparticles to the steel. The copper nanoparticles can help reduce the unevenness in the surface of the steel, which in turn reduces the amount of stress risers. Since the steel now has less stress risers, fatigue cracking is limited as well. “The new steel can also be developed with higher corrosion-resistance and weld ability,” [4]. Another steel-related issue that is resolved by nanotechnology is in the area of welding. Welding strength is an extremely important issue. The area affected by heat in a weld can be brittle and fail without warning at times. The addition of nanoparticles such as magnesium and calcium can help solve this issue by making “the heat affected zone grains finer in plate steel,” [4] which leads to strong welds. Improved fire resistance can also be achieved through nanotechnology. This is frequently done through a coating however, where the coating is “produced by a spray-on-cementitious process,” [2].


Nanotechnology is used in many different materials, including wood and glass. Wood is made of nanotubes or nanofibrils, primarily “lignocellulosic (woody tissue) elements,” [5] that are twice as strong as steel. Being able to use these nanofibrils would “...lead to a new paradigm in sustainable construction,” [5] since the creation and use of the material would be a part of a renewable cycle. Using these lignocellulosic could open up the possibility of “self-sterilizing surfaces, internal self- repair and electronic lignocellulosic devices,” [5].

Glass also makes use of nanotechnology. Nano-Titanium dioxide is used to coat glass can give the glass a self-cleaning property. Titanium dioxide breaks down organic wastes and compounds, and because it also attracts water, the glass can attract rain water and use that to clean the dirt off of itself. Another use of nanotechnology in glass is to make it fire-protective. This can be done when a layer of silica nanoparticles is placed between glass panels. This layer turns into a fire-shield when heated.

Pavement is yet another area that can be improved by nanotechnology. Nanoscale materials can be added to current roads to improve features such as the hardness of the road, the durability, and water and skid resistance [4]. With the application of ZnO2, it is possible to make hydrophobic roads that cause quicker run-off and help prevent hydroplaning.

Nanotechnology can even be used in water treatment. Some of the uses of nanotechnology in water treatment include “...water purification separation and reactive media for water filtration,” [4]. Nanotechnology also has the possibility to help improve water quality, availability, and “viability of water resources, such as through the use of advanced filtration materials that enable greater water reuse, recycling, and desalinization,” [4].


Nanotechnology offers vast amounts of improvements in the civil engineering field. It has helped improve the quality of and solved many issues with building materials such as concrete and steel. The use of nanotechnology has also helped created more efficient and sustainable materials such as self-cleaning and self-repairing concrete and windows. The use of coatings made from nanotechnology helps improve fire-resistance, corrosion protection, insulation, and countless other applications. Nanotechnology can even help improve the quality and availability of water. As a possible future civil engineer, this type of technology is of utmost importance to me as I will have to work with nanotechnology in my future. When looking at all of these innovations and improvements upon construction and environmental areas, it can be clearly observed that nanotechnology is of vital importance to the field of civil engineering.


  1. Sanchez, Florence, and Konstantin Sobolev. "Nanotechnology in concrete--a review." Construction and Building Materials Nov. 2010: 2060+. General OneFile. Web. 9 Oct. 2012.
  2. "List of Nanotechnology Applications." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Sept. 2012. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. .
  3. "Nanotechnology Doubling the Service Life of Concrete." Nanotechnology Doubling the Service Life of Concrete. N.p., Jan. 2009. Web. 09 Oct. 2012. .


I would like to thank my fellow engineering students George Keith and Rob Small, as they assisted me throughout the entire writing process. I would also like to thank the librarian who came into our class and gave us an orientation on how to use the library databaes; I apologize for not remembering her name.