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Engineering small worlds: micro and nano technologies

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This module demonstrates how matter can be manipulated at the atomic and molecular scale to serve the engineering needs of society for ever-smaller systems acting as intelligent monitors, controllers and micro-environments. It covers: science at the micro and nano scales; engineering micro and nano-scale systems; structural/inertial devices; electronic/optical devices; and fluidic/biological devices. The module examines how micro and nano technologies are being advanced. You’ll also gain a firm grounding in engineering on both micro and nano scales, through the detailed study of how scientific and engineering principles are applied to the design and manufacture of real devices.

What you will study

The module examines the development of micro- and nano-scale devices in terms of their engineering and operation. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and biological engineering of these ‘small worlds’ is revolutionising our lives through devices smaller than the eye can see. Aspects of this ‘unseen’ engineering are investigated in the light of scientific principles and the practical constraints they impose. A selection of applications, chosen to illustrate how engineering solutions are achieved on the micro and nano scales, is described.

The printed study materials are divided into three main themes together with a supporting text book as an introduction to the subject of nanotechnology. The module is accompanied by a DVD-ROM.

Structural and inertial systems

The techniques of micro- and nano-fabrication have been successfully applied to a wide range of mechanical, electromechanical and purely structural devices. The first part of this block takes an example of a particular atomic scale mechanism whose exact form is crucial to its performance. Through examining the details of the manufacturing techniques available and how they affect both the composition and the shape of the mechanism, you will discover just how inextricably they are connected. Part two goes a stage further and looks at an inertial sensor, asking the question ‘Why are successful micro- and nano-engineered devices not simply miniature, scaled-down versions of their conventional counterparts? The laws of nature, although universal, make the world at these small scales quite alien to our common experience.

Electronic and optical devices

The success of microelectronics has always been based on a very shallow layer of semiconductor. So progress has always been in the direction of smaller components, packed more closely together, albeit over wider areas. Just before its fiftieth birthday, silicon-based electronics was miniaturised to the point where an electronically captured copy of an optical image could threaten conventional film and photocopier technologies. Part one of this block explores how this came about. The second part reveals how various electrical manipulations of organic molecules provide the means to render such electronic images instantly visible, once again combining fine, shallow structures extending over relatively large areas. The optoelectronic revolution has turned our world inside out.

Working with nature

Nature provides us with a stunning array of highly sophisticated nanoscale ‘machinery’, brought to our attention as we explore ever smaller scales. Nature’s nanomachines tend to be soft, wet and sticky. In part one of this block you will see how these designs are ideally suited to the nanoscale and appreciate how molecules are able to ‘self-assemble’, to produce complex structures from the bottom up. In the second part, practical examples will be used to demonstrate how principles similar to those that operate in nature can be applied, both for constructing nanoscale devices and also for interacting with biological systems at the molecular level.

If you are considering progressing to The engineering project (T452), this is one of the OU level 3 modules on which you could base your project topic. Normally, you should have completed one of these OU level 3 modules (or be currently studying one) before registering for the project module.

Entry requirements

This module has no formal entry requirements.

However, you must be familiar with the following:

  • fundamental concepts of mechanics, dynamics, materials, chemistry and electricity
  • algebraic expressions, calculus notation and mathematical models in general
  • Windows and suitable word-processing and spreadsheet software.

This is an OU level 3 module that builds on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from OU level 1 and 2 modules. It’s intended for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject.

If you’re not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.

Preparatory work

The following OU level 2 modules would be good preparation:

  • Core Engineering A (T271) and Core engineering B (T272), or
  • Engineering: mechanics, materials, design (T207) – discontinued, or
  • Physics: from classical to quantum (S217), or
  • The physical world (S207) – discontinued


  • Engineering: mathematics, modelling, applications (T194), or
  • Essential mathematics 1 (MST124), or
  • Using mathematics (MST121) – discontinued.

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, audio programmes, DVD-ROMs, online forums, website.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

  • A desktop or laptop computer with Windows 7 or higher
  • The screen must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day-schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where the tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying T356 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Engineering small worlds: micro and nano technologies (T356) starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2019. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2020. A new module, Nanoscale engineering (T366), is planned to start for the first time in October 2021.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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