You might have seen the news article that made the rounds a few days ago about how the stained glass windows in medieval churches actually were a nanotechnology application capable of purifying air. While this is a pretty cool headline to capture readers' interest, the underlying finding is much more profound and could open up a new direction in catalysis and herald significant changes in the economy and environmental impact of chemical production. One of the great challenges for catalysis is to find catalysts which can work well under visible light. If scientists manage to crack this problem it would mean that we could use sunlight - the ultimate free, abundant and 'green' energy source - to drive chemical reactions. This is in contrast to today's conventional chemical reactions that often require high temperatures and therefore waste a lot of energy.
Photonic crystals are similar to semiconductors, only that the electrons are replaced by photons (i.e. light). By creating periodic structures out of materials with contrast in their dielectric constants, it becomes possible to guide the flow of light through the photonic crystals in a way similar to how electrons are directed through doped regions of semiconductors. The photonic band gap (that forbids propagation of a certain frequency range of light) gives rise to distinct optical phenomena and enables one to control light with amazing facility and produce effects that are impossible with conventional optics. A prominent example of a photonic crystal is the naturally occurring gemstone opal. The problem with artificial opals, which limits their applications, is that they lack in pattern variety and their fabrication requires very expensive equipment and sophisticated processes. In contrast, natural photonic crystals have various patterns that are quite promising structural matrices for creating novel optical devices. One example are peacock feathers, whose iridescent colors are derived from the 2D photonic crystals structure inside the cortex.
The key to using self-assembly as a controlled and directed nanofabrication process lies in designing the components that are required to self-assemble into desired patterns and functions. Self-assembly reflects information coded in individual components - characteristics such as shape, surface properties, charge, polarizability, magnetic dipole, mass, etc. These characteristics determine the interactions among the components and the whole essence of self-assembly arises from these dynamic properties. In this respect, many self-assembled nanostructures show to be responsive to external stimuli such as temperature, pH, or solvent polarity. An exciting field for nanotechnology researchers is the challenge of extending the scope of nanostructures with stimulus-responsive properties towards the fabrication of 'smart' nanoscale materials. New work by Korean scientists demonstrates that simple addition of small guest molecules triggers reversible structural transformation. The novelty of this research is that, so far, switching of material properties triggered by external stimuli via nanoscale objects had not been realized yet.
Remember the movie blockbuster Erin Brockovich? The film is based on a real world legal case that revolves around hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium (VI), used by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company to control corrosion in cooling towers in its Hinkley, CA compressor station. Chromium (VI), a natural metal, is known to be toxic and is recognized as a human carcinogen via inhalation. It also is widely used by industry in the manufacture of stainless steel, welding, painting and pigment application, electroplating, and other surface coating processes. Researchers in Germany now have developed a novel method of multilayer anticorrosion protection including the surface pre-treatment by sonication and deposition of polyelectrolytes and inhibitors. This method results in the formation of a smart polymer nanonetwork for environmentally friendly organic inhibitors.
The use of design concepts adapted from nature is a promising new route to the development of advanced materials. There are quite a number of terms such as biomimetics, biognosis, biomimicry, or even 'bionical creativity engineering' that refer to more or less the same thing: the application of methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology. And increasingly, nanotechnology researchers find naturally occurring nanostructures a useful inspiration for overcoming their design and fabrication challenges. Because biological structures are the result of millennia of evolution, their designs possess many unique merits that would be difficult to achieve by a completely artificial simulation. By replicating the eye of a fruit fly, researchers have now demonstrated a highly reliable and low-cost technique for making inorganic replicas of biotemplates for fabricating complex nanostructures with biologically inspired functionality.
Having come a long way from pottery and tableware, modern advanced ceramics are high-performance materials that find use in things such as bio-medical implants, jet engine turbine blades, superconductors, missile nose cones, scratch-proof watches, or the heat protection tiles used on the Space Shuttle. Super-tough and ultra-high temperature resistant materials are in critical need for applications under extreme conditions such as jet engines, power turbines, catalytic heat exchangers, military armors, aircrafts, and spacecrafts. Structural ceramics have largely failed to fulfill their promise of revolutionizing engines with strong materials that withstand very high temperature. The major problem with the use of ceramics as structural materials is their brittleness. Although many attempts have been made to increase their toughness, including incorporation of fibers and particles, currently available ceramics and their composites are still not as tough as metals and polymers. The brittleness of ceramic materials has not yet been overcome and it has proven difficult to solve this problem by conventional material engineering approaches. The extraordinary mechanical properties of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have generated strong research interest in their possible use in reinforced composite materials because incorporating CNTs into a ceramic matrix might be expected to produce tough as well as highly stiff and thermostable ceramic composites.
Electrometers are instruments that measure electric charge or electrical potential difference by means of electrostatic force. While early electrometers such as developed by Lord Kelvin in the 19th century were crude instruments, modern electrometers based on solid state technology are high-precision electronic devices that, in extreme cases, are so sensitive they can count individual electrons as they pass through a circuit. As the dimensions of electronic devices shrink further, the probes required to measure the voltage inside a miniature conductor have to be miniaturized, too. An alligator clip cannot be scaled down indefinitely to perform such tasks. Furthermore, as devices reach the nanoscale, the perturbation of the measurement on the device itself cannot be neglected and must be assessed. A few techniques, many of which are based on scanning a small object such as an atomic force microscope (AFM) tip, have been developed in the past to address this challenge. Each technique has its pros and cons.
Elastomeric (i.e. elastic) proteins are able to withstand significant deformations without rupture before returning to their original state when the stress is removed. Consequently, these proteins confer excellent mechanical properties to many biological tissues and biomaterials. Depending on the role performed by the tissue or biomaterial, elastomeric proteins can behave either as springs or shock absorbers. Recent scientific work in Canada resulted in the engineering of the first artificial chameleon elastomeric proteins that mimic and combine these two different behaviors into one protein. Under the regulation of a molecular regulator, these designer proteins exhibit one of the two distinct mechanical behaviors - spring or shock absorber - which closely mimic the two extreme behaviors observed in naturally occurring elastomeric proteins.