Hands-on nanotechnology: towards a nanorobotic assembly line
(Nanowerk Spotlight) Until the twentieth century, a single craftsman or team of craftsmen would normally create each part of an industrial product individually and assemble them together into a single item, making changes in the parts so that they would fit together and work together; the so-called English System of manufacture. Then Henry Ford came along and in 1907-08 developed the assembly line for his Model T automobile. This innovation revolutionized not only industry but also our society because it allowed mass production of industrial goods at much lower cost than before. At its core, an assembly line is a manufacturing process in which interchangeable parts are added to a product in a sequential manner to create a finished product. Nanotechnology techniques today are pretty much where the industrial world was before Ford's assembly line - a domain of craftsmen and not of mass production. It has long been a dream for nanotechnologists that robots could one day be used in a similar way to produce nanodevices. A group of researchers from Denmark and Germany have now developed the rudimentary beginnings of the nanotechnology equivalent of an assembly line. They have shown 'pick-and-place' assembly of a working device using a silicon gripper - a robotic 'hand' some 10000 times smaller than a human hand. This nanogripper, controlled by a nanorobotic arm, is capable of picking up a carbon nanofiber (CN) and fix it onto the tip of an atomic force microscope cantilever.
For the builders and engineers among you, our subject today is cement. Not necessarily a material one would associate with high-tech, not to mention nanotechnology. However, it's probably fair to say that our modern society is built on cement. Look around you and you'll find it everywhere - in buildings, roads, bridges, dams. Early construction cement (the word goes back to the Romans who used the term opus caementitium to describe masonry which resembled concrete and was made from crushed rock with burnt lime as binder) probably is as old as construction itself. So what is it? Cement, as it is commonly known, is a mixture of compounds made by burning limestone and clay together at very high temperatures. Cement is then used, together with water, as binder in a synthetic composite material known as concrete. For concrete to obtain its optimal properties it needs to harden. And that takes time. For builders, time is money and particularly in industrial settings time is a major cost issue. Time is also a safety and convenience factor, think about infrastructure repair work on roads and dams for instance. Cement manufacturers have already known that reducing the particle size of cements results in faster-binding formulations. By taking the ultimate reduction down to the nanoscale, researchers in Switzerland have shown that a one-step preparation of nanoparticulate cement with a conventional Portland cement composition results in a drastically increased early reactivity of the cement.
In order to exploit the unique properties of nanoscale materials for advanced applications it is often necessary to assemble nanoparticles into arrays with specific architectures. The interaction among the nanoparticles, or effects arising from their assembled larger structure, could result in interesting optical, magnetic or catalytic properties that researchers and engineers then could exploit for new materials and applications. In recent years, there has been much interest in colloidal crystals - which are examples of periodic nanoparticle arrays - as photonic crystals, templates for photonic crystals, sensors, optical and electrooptical devices, and as model systems to study crystallization processes. The success of many of these potential applications is currently limited by scientists' ability to control the structure of colloidal crystals. Normally, crystallization of uniform colloids produces face-centered cubic or hexagonal close-packing. A few other colloidal crystal structures have recently been reported, but they either require careful balance of electrostatic interactions between colloidal particles, or they rely on directing nanoparticles on a lithographic pattern that then dictates the geometry of a few layers in a thin film. New research now has resulted in a completely different and novel approach of colloidal crystallization that results in simple cubic colloidal crystals extending over many unit cells in three dimensions. Simple cubic packing is quite rare, even in atomic structures. Here, it results from combined disassembly and self-reassembly of a template- directed structure in a single reaction step.
When Gutenberg built his printing machine with moveable type in the mid 15th century, little idea did he have that he started the information age; even less that scientists would adopt the process to the nanoscale. The printing press went through several revolutionary improvements such as Lanston's monotype machine (1884), Mergenthaler's linotype machine (1886), the photo-typesetting process developed in the 1960s and finally digital printing in the 1980s. Today, printing is the most widespread technology to deposit small particles onto various surfaces. Commercial desktop laser printers use toner particles with a few microns in size while top of the line high-priced industrial printing machines sometimes already use sub-micron size particles. On the other hand, the precise positioning of nanoparticles on surfaces is key to most nanotechnology applications especially nanoelectronics. However, for automated patterning of particles, existing methods are either slow (e.g., dip-pen lithography) or require prefabricated patterns on the target substrate (e.g. for electrostatic positioning). Using a process akin to the printing press, researchers already have managed to bypass the need for epitaxial growth or wafer bonding to integrate wide ranging classes of dissimilar semiconducting nanomaterials onto substrates for the purpose of constructing heterogeneous, three dimensional electronics. Scientist in Switzerland have now developed a parallel method for the assembly and integration of a large number of bulk-synthesized nanoparticles onto an unstructured surface with high resolution and yield.
You might have come across the acronym NBIC, which stands for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and new technologies based on Cognitive science. Initially introduced in the U.S. National Science Foundation's 'Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance' report this acronym is often used to describe the basic idea that scientific and technological innovation can be stimulated through the convergence of two, three, or all four fields. At its most radical (and most controversial), proponents of convergence suggest that nanotechnologies will promote the unification of most branches of science and technology, based on the unity of nature at the nanoscale, including cognitive sciences. We'll keep you posted on this over the next few decades and see how it all works out. For the time being, though, it would be nice to be able to report on something more hands-on and - dare I write it - even practical. As it happens, scientists at the University of Toronto have done exactly that. They have demonstrated, for what appears to be the first time, the convergence of nanotechnology, microtechnology, microfluidics, photonics, signal processing, and proteomics to build a medical device that could lead to the development of fast, portable point-of-care diagnostics for infectious disease (IDs) such as HIV, SARS and many others.
Self-assembly is Nature's way of building stuff. This fundamental principle that governs natural structures on all scales, from molecules to galaxies, generates structural organization from pre-existing parts or components. In nanotechnology, self-assembly is seen as a key technique that will one day allow the fabrication of materials and devices from the bottom up. Still only tinkering with the basics, scientists so far have designed and created simple systems that could mimic natural functions by connecting biological components to abiotic materials to understand the workings of the biological system or to take advantage of the unique properties of the nonbiological components in a natural setting. Most nanotechnologist, even if they manage to self-assemble functional nanodevices, still operate exclusively at the nanoscale (it will be a while before you can order "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot" from your food replicator in the wall). Bridging the gap between the nano- and the macroworld has proven to be a huge hurdle. In a novel approach that merges material chemistry, biology and medicine, researchers in Germany have used living bacteria to show that self-assembly of functional materials and living systems is possible through a chemically programmed construction.
Carbon comes in many different forms, from the graphite found in pencils to the world's most expensive diamonds. In 1980, we knew of only three basic forms of carbon, namely diamond, graphite, and amorphous carbon. Then, fullerenes and carbon nanotubes were discovered and all of a sudden that was where nanotechnology researchers wanted to be. Recently, though, there has been quite a buzz about graphene. Discovered only in 2004, graphene is a flat one-atom thick sheet of carbon. Existing forms of carbon basically consist of sheets of graphene, either bonded on top of each other to form a solid material like the graphite in your pencil, or rolled up into carbon nanotubes (think of a single-walled carbon nanotube as a graphene cylinder) or folded into fullerenes. Physicists had long considered a free-standing form of planar graphene impossible; the conventional wisdom was that such a sheet always would roll up. Initially using such high-tech gadgets like pencils and sticky tape to strip chunks of graphite down to layers just one atom thick, the process has now been refined to involve more expensive instruments such as electron beam and atomic force microscopes. Despite being isolated only three years ago, graphene has already appeared in hundreds of papers. The reason scientists are so excited is that two-dimensional crystals (it's called 2D because it extends in only two dimensions - length and width; as the material is only one atom thick, the third dimension, height, is considered to be zero) open up a whole new class of materials with novel electronic, optical and mechanical properties.
An incredible amount of research has gone, and still goes, into the understanding of the properties of nanoscale particles. In order to capitalize on that research, scientists and engineers have to take the next step, which is to turn nanoparticle laboratory results into usable materials and devices. One way to use engineered nanoparticles in the real world is in thin films. Nanoparticulate thin films are thin layers, sometimes only a few nanometers thick, of composite materials that contain nanoparticles. These new materials have a wide range of applications such as nanoelectronics, magnetic storage devices, or optical coating. However, most processes used to fabricate thin nanocomposite films with high nanoparticle fillings suffer from random nanoparticle agglomeration causing formation of irregularly shaped nanostructured features within the composite. Unfortunately, the improved mechanical, tribological and electrical properties of the nanocomposites over the host matrix materials (mostly polymers) are only attainable if the nanoparticle inclusions are of uniform size and shape with very good degree of dispersion. A newly developed technique now allows a wide range of control of including metal nanoparticle into polymer matrices in a single step process.