DNA, the fundamental building block of our genetic makeup, has become an intense nanotechnology research field. DNA molecules can serve as precisely controllable and programmable scaffolds for organizing functional nanomaterials in the design, fabrication, and characterization of nanometer scale electronic devices and sensors. The reason why DNA could be useful in nanotechnology for the design of electric circuits is the fact that it actually is the best nanowire in existence - it self-assembles, it self-replicates and it can adopt various states and conformations. The most basic and simplest form of DNA mechanical devices that are expected to be the first to demonstrate some close-to-reality functions are DNA tweezers. This concept was first introduced in 2000 by scientists at Bell Labs and Oxford University. To keep this type of tweezers running, two fuel DNA strands are alternately added to a buffered solution that contains the tweezers. These fuels are basically two stretches of complementary DNA, one of which closes the tweezers and the other opens them. The exciting potential applications for DNA tweezers include their use in constructing various molecular devices dedicated to repairing a functional unit in a cell, harnessing the delivery of drug molecules to pathogenic cells, or assembling nanoscale devices.
Bone grafts are second only to blood transfusions on the list of transplanted materials. With bone grafts, a surgeon replaces missing bone with material from the patient's own body, or a synthetic or natural substitute. Traditional tissue repair techniques, especially with synthetic materials, may lead to poor integration with the existing bone or tissue structure, potentially transfers dangerous pathogens into the body, and sometimes lead to a complete rejection of the graft. To minimize these harmful side effects, researchers are developing sophisticated tissue engineering techniques based on the construction of three-dimensional scaffolds out of biomaterials to provide mechanical support and guide cell growth into new tissues or organs. In the quest to make bone, joint and tooth implants almost as good as nature's own version, scientists are turning to nanotechnology. They have found that the response of host organisms to nanomaterials is different than that observed with conventional materials. The surface nano-characteristics of biomaterials are increasingly recognized as crucial factors with regard to tissue acceptance and cell behaviors. While this new field of nanomedical implants is in its very early stage, it holds the promise of novel and improved implant materials.
Forget boxy loudspeakers. Researchers have now found that just a piece of carbon nanotube thin film could be a practical magnet-free loudspeaker simply by applying an audio frequency current through it. These loudspeakers - which are only tens of nanometers thick, transparent, flexible, and stretchable - can be tailored into many shapes and mounted on a variety of insulating surfaces, such as room walls, ceilings, pillars, windows, flags, and clothes without area limitations. The scientists demonstrated that their CNT loudspeakers can generate sound with wide frequency range, high sound pressure level, and low total harmonic distortion. Another advantage compared to conventional loudspeakers is that the CNT loudspeakers don't vibrate and are damage tolerant. They will work even if part of the thin film is torn or damaged.
Modern fuel cells have the potential to revolutionize transportation. Like battery-electric vehicles, fuel cell vehicles are propelled by electric motors. But while battery electric vehicles use electricity from an external source and store it in a battery, fuel cells onboard a vehicle are electrochemical devices that convert a fuel's chemical energy directly to electrical energy with high efficiency and without combustion. One of the leading fuel cell technologies developed, in particular for transportation applications, is the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, also known as polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells - both resulting in the same acronym PEMFC. These fuel cells are powered by the electrochemical oxidation reaction of hydrogen and by the electroreduction of the oxygen contained in air. Presently, platinum-based electrocatalysts are the most widely used in PEM fuel cell prototypes. However, this metal is expensive due to its limited supply and its price is highly volatile. This creates one of the major barriers preventing commercialization of PEMFCs - the lack of suitable materials to make them affordable. Nanotechnology provides solutions to this problem.
Crystalline nanoporous compounds have attracted the attention of scientists and materials engineers because of the interest in creating nanoscale spaces and the novel phenomena in them. Nanoporous materials find applications in many chemical processes such as separation and catalysis and are also heavily researched as storage materials, for instance in hydrogen fuel cells. Researchers still lack a complete understanding of the mechanism that leads to, and occurs during, crystal growth. Only once scientists achieve full control of properties such as composition, structure, size, morphology, and the presence and form of defects within the crystals can they fully exploit the benefits of crystalline nanoporous materials for the fabrication of novel materials. Researchers in the UK have now presented definitive real-time evidence of the crystal growth mechanism in what appears to be the first high-resolution observation of in-situ crystal growth of a crystalline nanoporous material monitored using atomic force microscopy (AFM).
Nanostructured boron and boron-related compounds have attracted considerable scientific attention to exploit their potential use in high temperature electronics, thermoelectrics, and photovoltaics due to their unique chemical and physical properties, such as chemical inertness, hardness, and adjustable energy bandgap. Boron's theoretical tubular structures may even have higher electrical conductivity than carbon nanotubes (CNTs). So far, carbon nanotubes have been considered the most promising material for field emitters, for instance as electron emitters for field emission displays. Field emission results from the tunneling of electrons from a metal tip into vacuum, under application of a strong electric field. The small diameter and high aspect ratio of CNTs is very favorable for field emission. Due to the still existing difficulties of synthesizing CNTs with uniform chirality, a number of technical questions - such as stability, low melting point and uniformity of field emission - remain to be overcome. So scientists still looking to find other ideal candidates. New experiments conducted by scientists in China suggest that boron nanowires might fit the bill.
Antireflection coatings have become one of the key issues for mass production of silicon solar cells. Silicon solar cells are the most common solar cells on the market today. They are constructed with layers of n-type silicon having many electrons and p-type silicon having many electron holes. When hit by sunlight, an equal number of electrons and electron holes are generated at the interface between the two silicon layers and, as the electrons migrate from the n-type silicon to the p-type silicon, an electric flow is generated. One of the problems with silicon solar cells is the high refractive index of silicon, which causes more than 30% of incident light to be reflected back from the surface of the silicon crystals. Solar cell manufacturers have therefore developed various kinds of antireflection coatings (ARCs) to reduce the unwanted reflective losses. Currently, quarter-wavelength silicon nitride thin films deposited by plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) are the industrial standard for ARCs on crystalline silicon substrates. Unfortunately, current top-down lithographic techniques for creating subwavelength silicon gratings, such as electron-beam lithography, nanoimprint lithography, and interference lithography, require sophisticated equipment and are expensive to implement, thus contributing to the still high costs of this type of solar cells. Borrowing from Mother Nature's millions of years old design book, researchers have now come up with a nanotechnology antireflection coating inspired by the eyes of moths.
A major issue for using self-contained nanodevices, for instance as implantable nanosensors or environmental monitoring devices, is the question of how to power these tiny machines with an independent power source. Options include nanobatteries and nanogenerators that harvest energy from their environment. By converting mechanical energy from body movement, engine vibrations, or water or air flow into electricity, these nanoscale power plants could make possible a new class of self-powered medical devices, sensors and portable electronics. Probably the leading team that is driving forward the work on nanogenerators for converting mechanical energy into electricity is Zhong Lin Wang's group at Georgia Tech. Wang's team has now designed and demonstrated an innovative approach to fabricating a nanogenerator by integrating nanowires and pyramid-shaped nanobrushes into a multilayer power generator. By demonstrating an effective way for raising the output current, voltage and power, this work provides the technological platform for scaling up the performance of nanogenerators to a level that some day might be able to independently power devices like pacemakers or iPods.