A recent Associated Press article about how nitrogen-filled tires may boost an automobile's gas-mileage performance caught my eye. It got me thinking about how very small things -- whether nitrogen molecules, carbon nanotubes, or the scores of other nanoscale materials and particles that are now flooding the commercial market -- can have a demonstrable effect on product performance.

Nitrogen molecules are slightly larger than oxygen molecules and therefore don't leak as readily as oxygen, so they work better at keeping tires properly inflated. The nitrogen molecules' unique properties also are said to reduce oxidation as well as keep the tire from heating up. Both properties help tires last longer.

According to the article, people using nitrogen-filled tires are experiencing a 1 MPG to 1.5 MPG boost in their miles-per-gallon performance. If your car gets around 20 MPG, that's a 5% improvement -- not a huge change, to be sure, but with gas hovering around $3 a gallon, the savings can add up over time.

The nitrogen trick isn't new. NASCAR drivers, trucking companies, and airlines have been using nitrogen for some time to improve their performance.

In essence, the users of nitrogen-filled tires are taking advantage of the unique nanoscale properties of the light gas. In this same way, a number of publicly traded companies, such as Abraxis (NASDAQ:ABBI), Nanophase (NASDAQ:NANX), and Headwaters (NYSE:HW), are using nanoparticles, nanomaterials, and nanocatalysts to incrementally improve everything from pharmaceutical products and sunscreen lotions to coal and oil. To my mind, this is comparable to the way many of today's Fortune 500 companies, including GE (NYSE:GE), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), IBM (NYSE:IBM), and 3M (NYSE:MMM), are aggressively pursuing nanotechnology-related research and development strategies to stay ahead of the curve.

Nanotechnology might seem like a risky investing strategy, but just as nitrogen isn't a volatile gas when put into a tire, neither is nanotechnology risky when properly applied to an investor's portfolio. In fact, if you fill your portfolio prudently, you should be able to achieve a modest improvement in your financial performance.

For more nanotechnology-related Foolishness, check out these recent articles from Jack Uldrich:

Interested in learning more about nanotechnology? Ask us for an all-access pass to Rule Breakers , where Headwaters is a recommendation. Go ahead -- you've got nothing to lose. Your pass is free, and it's good for 30 days.

3M and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is using nanotechnology to inflate his portfolio. He owns stock in GE, Intel, IBM, and Headwaters. The Motley Fool has a strict disclosure policy.