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.
The reduction of linewidth is one of the most important problems in integrated circuit (IC) technology because the speed and performance of computer chips is dictated by the lithographic minimum printable size. In the early 1960s, ICs had a linewidth of about 5 micrometers. Dramatic improvements in optical lithography technology has brought this down to the limits allowed by the wavelength of light that is used in the process. Current state-of-the-art photolithography tools use deep ultraviolet light with wavelengths of 248 and 193 nm, which theoretically allow minimum feature sizes down to 50 nm. But even the shortest UV wavelength currently in use (157 nm) does not provide the resolution required by the ever decreasing feature sizes of state-of-the-art nanomanufacturing processes. Researchers in Israel have been working on the use of laser ablation to write very small features - much smaller than the optical wavelength - on the surface of different materials. They have now demonstrated floating tip nanolithography, a high quality non-contact surface modification with high spatial resolution within a commercial atomic force microscope.
One of the true nanotechnologies that pre-dates the explosion of the popular use of the word during the past few years is Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD). This gas phase chemical process is used to create extremely thin coatings only a few nanometers thick which can be deposited in a precisely controlled way. Initially used as a technique for making a specific type of light display (electroluminescent display) smaller and more efficient, the ALD process was invented and patented by Tuomo Suntola and his co-workers in Finland in 1974 (co-incidentally, this is the year that the term 'nanotechnology' was first defined by Norio Taniguchi). The fundamental notion behind Atomic Layer Deposition is rather simple: It is a process by which an atomic layer of material can be affixed to a surface material one layer at a time. By depositing one layer per cycle, ALD offers extreme precision in ultra-thin film growth since the number of cycles determines the number of atomic layers and therefore the precise thickness of deposited film.
Storing the fuel that is needed to run a hydrogen car in a compact and affordable way is still a major challenge. You would need about 5 kg of hydrogen to have the same average driving range as today's cars. Since hydrogen's density is only 1/10th of a gram per liter at room temperature, that means you somehow need to pack 50,000 liters of hydrogen into your tank. There are three ways of doing this: as a high-pressure compressed gas; a cryogenic liquid; or as a solid. Rather than using hundreds of atmospheres to compress hydrogen into a tank, or cooling it down to minus 252 C to liquefy it, hydrogen storage in solid form offers the safest alternative for transportation and storage of hydrogen. Research in this area has led to metal hydrides, chemical hydrides, and physisorption-based storage, where hydrogen is adsorbed onto the interior surfaces of a porous material. The stored hydrogen can then be released by heat, electricity, or chemical reaction. Many metals are capable of absorbing hydrogen as well. The storage of gas in solids is not only an intriguing alternative for hydrogen storage but other types of gases, such as carbon dioxide and other environmentally important gases as well. Gas storage in solids is quickly becoming an important technology, with applications ranging from energy and the environment to biology and medicine. A new review article describes the types of material that make good porous gas storage materials, why different porous solids are good for the storage of different gases, and what criteria need to be met to make a useable gas storage material.
You might have seen our news item from a few days ago about BMW's shape shifting concept car. NASA has worked on something much more revolutionary, called the 'Morphing' program, for a few years already. The idea is that aircraft of the future will not be built of traditional, multiple, mechanically connected parts and systems. Instead, aircraft wing construction will employ fully-integrated, nanotechnology enabled embedded 'smart' materials and actuators that will enable aircraft wings with unprecedented levels of aerodynamic efficiencies and aircraft control. Able to respond to the constantly varying conditions of flight, sensors will act like the nerves in a bird's wing and will measure the pressure over the entire surface of the wing. The response to these measurements will direct actuators, which will function like the bird's wing muscles. Just as a bird instinctively uses different feathers on its wings to control its flight, the actuators will change the shape of the aircraft's wings to continually optimize flying conditions. Active flow control effectors will help mitigate adverse aircraft motions when turbulent air conditions are encountered.