It is hard to imagine the size of a nanometer. At one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer has been compared to 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair, a million times smaller than the length of an ant, or the amount a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to lift a razor to his face.
Yet, nanotechnology—the ability to control matter at the nanoscale (approximately 1 to 100 nanometers)—is having a huge impact on science, engineering, and technology because matter behaves differently at that size.
The impact of nanotechnology on society has been compared to the invention of electricity or plastic—it is transformative to nearly everything we use today. Uses of nanotechnology range from applications for stronger golf clubs and stain-resistant pants to future visions of transforming manufacturing and treating cancer.
What’s so special about nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology and nanoscience involve the ability to see and to control individual atoms and molecules. At nanoscale, matter has unique physical, chemical, and biological properties that enable new applications. Some nanostructured materials are stronger or have different magnetic properties; some are better at conducting heat or electricity, or may become more chemically reactive, reflect light better, or change color as their size or structure is altered.
According to an article in ASME.org, nanotechnology “will leave virtually no aspect of life untouched and is expected to be in widespread use by 2020.” In addition, a policy paper by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) describes nanotechnology as modern history’s “sixth revolutionary technology,” following the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, nuclear energy revolution in the 1940s, green revolution in the 1960s, information technology revolution in the 1980s, and biotechnology revolution in the 1990s.
The U.S. federal government is backing nanotech, and the 2015 Federal Budget provides more than $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a continued investment which supports the President’s technology innovation strategy.
Recent investments in nanotech
Major investments in nanotech are being made at the state level and in the private sector as well. New York State recently partnered with General Electric and other New York-based companies on a $500 million initiative that will focus on the development of new, smaller semiconductors for computers and technology. These semiconductors are made possible by nanotechnology and are used in industries such as solar power, health care, and aviation.
The public-private partnership, known as the New York Power Electronics Manufacturing Consortium, will be based at the SUNY College of Nanoscale and Engineering in Albany but will involve companies and universities from around New York and is expected to create thousands of jobs. The use of the nanotech facility is also expected to attract researchers and private companies to create a high-tech cluster in New York State.
Current and future applications in engineering and manufacturing
With nanotechnology, individual atoms and molecules can be manipulated and rearranged to create useful materials, devices, and systems. With this manipulation, products can be made with fewer imperfections and more durability, drugs can be more efficient and have fewer side effects, and energy sources can be cleaner and more cost-effective.
Current applications of nanotechnology include:
- Nanocomposites: car parts, golf clubs
- Nanocrystals: antimicrobial dressing
- Nanoparticles: stain resistant khakis, sunscreen and skin creams to absorb light, rocket propellants, synthetic bone
- Nanostructured materials: tungsten-carbide-cobalt composite powder to make a sintered alloy as hard as a diamond for cutting tools, drill bits, jet engine parts
- Nanoclays and nanocomposites: packaging – thinner material, lighter weight, greater shelf life
- Nanocomposite coatings: tennis balls, longer lasting
- Nanotubes: nanotube based screens for TVs and computers
- Nanocatalysts: liquefy coal and turn it into gas
- Nanofilters: filter capable of filtering out the smallest particles – water or sterilization of medical serums
There is also a subset of nanotechnology that focuses specifically on manufacturing. Nanomanufacturing leads to the production of improved materials and new products, and there are two basic approaches to nanomanufacturing: top-down or bottom-up.
Top-down fabrication reduces large pieces of materials down to the nanoscale, like someone carving a figure out of a block of wood, but this can result in waste. The bottom-up approach to nanomanufacturing creates products by building them up from atomic and molecular-scale components. Although less wasteful than the top-down method, this can be time-consuming. Scientists are also exploring the concept of placing certain molecular-scale components together that will spontaneously “self-assemble,” from the bottom-up into ordered structures.
Within the top-down and bottom-up categories of nanomanufacturing, there are a growing number of new processes that enable nanomanufacturing, including:
- Chemical vapor deposition: a process in which chemicals react to produce very pure, high-performance films
- Molecular beam epitaxy: a method for depositing highly controlled thin films
- Atomic layer epitaxy: a process for depositing one-atom-thick layers on a surface
- Dip pen lithography: a process in which the tip of an atomic force microscope is “dipped” into a chemical fluid and then used to “write” on a surface, like an old-fashioned ink pen onto paper
- Nanoimprint lithography: a process for creating nanoscale features by “stamping” or “printing” them onto a surface
- Roll-to-roll processing: a high-volume process to produce nanoscale devices on a roll of ultrathin plastic or metal
- Self-assembly: the process in which a group of components come together to form an ordered structure without outside direction
Are there risks to nanotechnology?
As with any new technology, there are risks that need to be considered along with the rewards. The fibers and particles produced by nanotech can become airborne, and some research has shown that inhaling airborne nanoparticles and nanofibers could be as harmful as inhaling asbestos and may lead to a number of pulmonary diseases.
Other seemingly benign uses of nanotechnology may also have long-term effects. For instance, the bacteriostatic silver nanoparticles used in socks to reduce foot odor are released in the wash and enter the waste water stream. This may destroy the beneficial bacteria that are critical to natural ecosystems, farms, and waste treatment processes.
Studies on risks continue and the scientific community calls for handling nanomaterials very carefully, but regulations have not been imposed on nanotechnology due to the fears of stifling innovation.
Preparing for opportunity
Engineers with expertise in nanotechnology are becoming increasingly valuable, and universities are starting to offer programs focused on nanotech for engineering students.
Boston University, Rice University, Florida Polytechnic University, and Villanova are just some of the schools that have programs focused on nanotech, which promises to be a growing field. A listing of Nanotechnology Degree Programs shows the various bachelors, masters, and doctorate programs available in countries around the world which will prepare engineers for future jobs in nanotechnology. According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, more than 150,000 people in the U.S. held jobs in nanotechnology in 2008, and by 2015 that number is expected to grow to 800,000.
As nanotechnology gains momentum and starts to touch many facets of our lives, countries around the globe are investing in this technology which has relatively low barriers to entry. The promise of nanotechnology is being realized by the many companies who want to be gain a share of the market for nanotech-based products, which Global Industry Analysts estimates will be $3.3 trillion by 2018.
Photo courtesy of EPSRC IRC in Early Warning Sensing Systems for Infectious Diseases