While humans haven't been able to control nano-sized particles until quite recently, nanoparticles have always existed. They are present in volcanic ash, like the plumes that blasted from Mount St. Helens in 1980.

© Gary Braasch/CORBIS

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All week, you've been dreaming of a day at the beach. As you wriggle into UV-protectant swimwear, slather on sunscreen, and grab your camera and your sunglasses, nanotechnology is last thing on your mind. Yet it's a part of what you're wearing, holding and, to a large extent, using in your daily life.

Nanotechnology, which is the study and manipulation of matter so small it can't even be detected with a high-power microscope, lends UV-protection to your swimwear and sunscreen, anti-glare coating to your camera lens and scratch-resistance to your sunglasses. Nanocrystals, a type of nanoparticle, are used in products ranging from makeup and plastic storage bags to odor-resistant socks and home pregnancy tests. And someday, nanocrystals could power your car, items around your home or the office building down the street.

Nanotechnology is an emerging scientific field that's rich with possibility, but this ultra-microscopic matter wasn't created in the dark recesses of a mad scientist's laboratory. Nanoparticles occur naturally. They're found in sea spray, volcanic ash and smoke [source: Science Daily]. Sometimes, nanocrystals are a part of byproducts like vehicle exhaust or the fumes emitted during welding [source: Nano].

Nanocrystals range from 1 to 100 nanometers in size and are measured on a nanoscale. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is 1 million times smaller than an ant. So just how could a nanocrystal manage to become a powerful fuel source? After all, an average sheet of paper measures 100,000 nanometers thick, making it huge by comparison [source: Nano].

The key lies in the way nanocrystals behave. Particles of most sizes, no matter what they are made of, follow a common set of scientific rules. It's as if they've been collectively trained to keep their elbows off the proverbial dinner table; there are expectations -- borne out by observation -- about how these particles interact. But not nanocrystals.

Nanocrystals are willful, rebellious little things. And that is exactly why they could be the next big fuel source [source: Boysen].