You have seen the effect: if you splash water on your car it leaves wet areas; if you do this with your freshly polished car the drops just pearl off. Materials scientists are very interested in designing surfaces that allow them to control this effect - called wetting - because it enables them to fabricate things like more comfortable contact lenses, better prosthetics, and self-cleaning materials. The primary measurement to determine wettability is the angle between the solid surface and the surface of a liquid droplet on the solid's surface. For example, a droplet of water on a hydrophobic surface would have a high contact angle, but a liquid spread out on a hydrophilic surface would have a small one. Maintaining the position of a drop of water on a hydrophobic surface (e.g. your newly waxed car) appears to be impossible - it will just move across the surface. Scientists in Israel have managed to fabricate a nanostructured, highly hydrophobic surface that allows them to pin a nearly spherical drop of water in place. A droplet sitting on one class of these substrates did not fall even after the substrate was turned upside-down! An important application for this novel fabrication technique could be as a tool in single-molecule spectroscopy: a water drop, containing molecules to be probed, could be pinned down for an extended time, allowing to spectroscopically probe it for long periods without affecting the properties of molecules, or even just one molecule, dissolved in the water drop.
Notwithstanding the mixed news (to put it mildly) that individual investors have been getting from their nanotechnology stock portfolios, industry as a whole is pressing ahead with incorporating nanotechnologies in their products and processes. Unlike many other areas of science, nanosciences are capable of influencing a wide sweep of industrial and medical processes, from cleaner energy applications, to smart materials and revolutionary medical applications. It is increasingly difficult to know which products use nanotechnology or incorporate nanomaterials; nanotechnology consumer product directories give an idea where nanomaterials are used but are increasingly useless in helping to understand the full extent of nanotechnologies penetrating industrial manufacturing processes. Some consumer companies embrace 'nano' wholeheartedly and advertise their 'revolutionary' face creams, tennis rackets and car waxes; some, after increased scrutiny, have become very quiet about their nanotechnology activities (especially the large cosmetics and food companies); and some even change their company name to something that doesn't include 'nano' ('cleantech' or 'greentech' has become the new nanotech). Combine this technological shift that is taking place in industries across the board with the still existing lack of conclusive answers about the toxicity of nanomaterials, and you get a worrisome mix of industry pushing ahead unconstrained, a regulatory environment where key constituencies are ill prepared and underfunded to address the issues with the speed required, and public opinion that covers the whole range from activists calling for a complete moratorium on all things nano to snake-oil salesmen who promise nanotechnology stock tips that will make you a gazillionaire. Oh, and apparently now you can also add to this mix certain religious types in the U.S. who find nanotechnology is morally not acceptable.
A new study reveals that nanoparticles do not just act as simple, passive carriers but are actively involved in mediating biological activity. These findings have significant implications in understanding the interactions of nanostructures with biological systems. But, once properly understood, they could be important in assisting in the design of intelligent nanodevices, with great potential for the development of novel molecular-based diagnostics and therapeutics. On the other hand, they could also be useful in understanding nanotoxicity. In spite of what has been achieved so far by scientists and clinical researchers, a complete understanding of how cells interact with nanostructures of well-defined sizes, at the molecular level, remains poorly understood.
Whenever you read an article about nano this or nano that, chances are you come across a large number of confusing three-letter acronyms - AFM, SFM, SEM, TEM, SPM, FIB, CNT and so on. It seems scientists earn extra kudos when they come up with a new three-letter combination. One of the most important acronyms in nanotechnology is AFM - Atomic Force Microscopy. This instrument has become the most widely used tool for imaging, measuring and manipulating matter at the nanoscale and in turn has inspired a variety of other scanning probe techniques. Originally the AFM was used to image the topography of surfaces, but by modifying the tip it is possible to measure other quantities (for example, electric and magnetic properties, chemical potentials, friction and so on), and also to perform various types of spectroscopy and analysis. Today we take a look at one of the instruments that has it all made possible. So far, over 20,000 AFM-related papers have been published; over 500 patents were issued related to various forms of scanning probe microscopes (SPM); several dozen companies are involved in manufacturing SPM and related instruments, with an annual worldwide turnover of $250-300 million, and approx. 10,000 commercial systems sold (not counting a significant number of home-built systems).
'Field evaporation' is the phenomenon by which surface atoms are ionized (evaporated) under an applied, extremely high electric field of the order of several volts per nanometer. Electric fields of this magnitude can only be achieved by applying a high field to an extremely sharp needle such as the specimen tip in a Field Ion Microscope. Field evaporation was first reported over 50 years ago and has since developed into the powerful Atom Probe Field Ion Microscopy which is able to reproduce the atomic structure of a piece of material in three dimensions. Today, field evaporation is mainly used for material characterization, and the behavior of nanomaterials at extremely strong electric fields is of great scientific and technological interest. In principle, the field evaporation phenomenon can be utilized not only for materials characterization, but also for materials processing and morphology control with extremely high precision because of its unique atom-by-atom removal capability. However, detailed structural evolution of nanomaterials during field evaporation has never been directly observed and this limitation has greatly restricted the potential applications of field evaporation as a materials-processing tool. Now, researchers in Beijing have reported the first direct observation of field evaporation phenomena using a transmission electron microscopy (TEM) technique. By conducting in situ TEM field evaporation experiments on individual carbon nanotubes (CNTs), the researchers were able to reveal details about the structural evolution of the nanomaterials via direct observation. Using this technique, they have been able to perform controlled engineering of the CNTs with atomic precision, for example, grinding and shortening of CNTs, shaping of the open ends of CNTs, and opening of CNT caps.
Harnessing the power of the sun to replace the use of fossil fuels holds tremendous promise. One way to do this is through the use of solar, or photovoltaic, cells. Large-scale installation already show the technical feasibility of this technology although the major problem of photovoltaic solar energy - its relative inefficiency - still needs to be overcome to make the cost of electricity produced by solar cells equal or less than electricity produced by nuclear or fossil fuels. Until now, solar cells that convert sunlight to electric power have been dominated by solid state junction devices, often made of silicon wafers. Efforts are being made in laboratories worldwide to design ordered assemblies of semiconductor nanostructures, metal nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes for constructing next generation solar energy conversion devices. Quantum dots have been identified as important light harvesting material for building highly efficient solar cells. Quantum dots are nanoscale semiconductor structures which, when exposed to light at certain wavelengths, can generate free electrons and create an electrical current. Quantum dot technology represents an exciting field of research in solar energy yet the actual research results to use them in solar cells are relatively limited. By combining spectroscopic and photoelectrochemical techniques, researchers now have demonstrated size-dependent charge injection from different-sized cadmium selenide (CdSe) quantum dots into titanium dioxide nanoparticles and nanotubes, showing a way to maximize the light absorption of quantum dot-based solar cells. Termed 'rainbow solar cells', these next-generation solar cells consist of different size quantum dots assembled in an orderly fashion. Just as a rainbow displays multiple colors of the visible light spectrum, the 'rainbow solar cell' has the potential to simultaneously absorb multiple wavelengths of light and convert it to electricity in a very efficient manner.
Years of engineering research and design, together with uncounted billions of dollars from government and industry, went into the development of the modern petroleum industry. It would be unreasonable to expect that we can replace this industry with greener alternatives without a similarly expansive and sustained effort. Point in case is a recently published roadmap to 'Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries' that outlines a number of novel process pathways for biofuels production based on scientific and engineering proofs of concept demonstrated in laboratories around the world. The key conclusion from this (U.S.-centric) report is that 'while the U.S. has made a significant investment in technologies focusing on breaking the biological barriers to biofuels, principally ethanol, there has not been a commensurate investment in the research needed to break the chemical and engineering barriers to hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.' This statement of course holds true not only for biofuels but for any kind of green energy technology. The production of ethanol from corn has come under intense scrutiny and discussion for its potential environmental and economic side effects. Advances in agriculture and biotechnology have made it possible to inexpensively produce lignocellulosic biomass (plant biomass that is composed of cellulose and lignin) at costs that are significantly lower (about $15 per barrel of oil energy equivalent) than crude oil. The key bottleneck for lignocellulosic-derived biofuels is the lack of technology for the efficient conversion of biomass into liquid fuels. Advances in nanotechnology have given us an unprecedented ability to understand and control chemistry at the molecular scale, which promises to accelerate the development of biomass-to-fuels production technologies.
Nanotechnology is already part of the process through which silicon-based photovoltaic solar cells - which make up some 95 percent of the solar cell market today - produce electricity. Nanotechnology is also the focus of research and development of a new generation of solar power technology that includes organic and inorganic solar cells derived from nanocrystals that can convert sunlight into electricity at a fraction of the cost of silicon solar cells. Silicon-based solar cells are made from a refined, highly purified silicon crystal, similar to those used in the manufacture of integrated circuits and computer chips. The high cost of these silicon solar cells and their complex production process has generated interest in developing alternative photovoltaic technologies. Compared to silicon-based devices, polymer solar cells are lightweight (which is important for small autonomous sensors), disposable, inexpensive to fabricate, flexible, designable on the molecular level, and have little potential for negative environmental impact. These solar nanocells are so small and pliable that they can be painted onto physical structures so that the windows and walls of a building may one day soon be able to generate electricity. The big question today is to what degree polymer solar cells will be able to commercially compete with silicon solar cells. There are two major issues that need to be solved: 1) The present efficiency of organic solar cells lies at only around 6 percent, compared to up to 30 percent for the most efficient silicon cells. 2) Polymer solar cells suffer from huge degradation effects: the efficiency is decreased over time due to environmental effects such as water, oxygen or UV rays.