Future nanomanufacturing processes will rely on two basic principles: a combination of chemical synthesis and self-assembly on one hand and robotic nanofabrication on the other. While the former is a controlled 'natural' process relying on chemistry and self-organization principles of nature, the latter will be an industrial process similar in concept to today's automated manufacturing assembly lines. Robotic assembly lines in modern factories have come a long way since the early 20th century when Henry Ford first used an assembly line on an industrial scale for his Model T automobile. Nevertheless, the principle is the same. Rather than having a single craftsman or team of craftsmen create each part of a product individually and assemble them together into a single item, an assembly line is a (often completely automated) manufacturing process in which interchangeable parts are added to a product in a sequential manner to create a finished product. While sporadic automation of certain tasks has already begun (for instance, automated microrobotic injection of foreign materials into biological cells), nanotechnology techniques today are pretty much where the industrial world was before Ford's assembly line - a domain of highly skilled artisans and not of automated mass production. It has long been a dream for nanotechnologists that robots could one day be used in an assembly line type of process to manufacture nanodevices. Researchers are beginning to develop the first rudimentary nanomanipulation devices that could lead to future automated manufacturing systems. Now, a team of scientists in Canada have reported the first demonstration of closed-loop force-controlled grasping at the nanonewton level.
Following up on yesterday's Spotlight about graphene quantum dots, today we look at what might be the first realistic application of this revolutionary material. Back in December we reported on the development of transparent and conductive graphene-based composites for use as window electrodes in solid-state dye sensitized solar cells. While the researchers who conducted this work produced graphene by chemical oxidation of graphite, a multi-step process, new results from the University of Manchester group that discovered graphene in 2004 show a simpler route to producing graphene films that cannot only be used for solar cells but might be well suited for liquid crystal displays.
There are several touch sensor technologies available to power touch screens like the ones you can find on your bank ATM, airport check-in kiosk or other self-service terminals. What they all have in common is that they are sensitive to human touch because their screens are coated with a special transparent thin film that act as a sensor. This sensor generally has an electrical current or signal going through it and touching the screen causes a voltage or signal change. Apart from touch screens, transparent conductive thin films are used in numerous products such as flat-panel displays, solar cells or as thermal barriers in energy-saving windows. Future applications will include flexible displays for e-papers, smart cards, 'heads-up' displays integrated into cockpit and car windows, and windows that can be used as a light source at night. All this has driven increased research activity in finding alternative novel transparent electrode materials with good stability, high transparency and excellent conductivity. Graphene is one good candidate and films based on carbon nanotubes have attracted significant attention recently as well. Researchers now have demonstrated the use of metallic nanotubes to make thin films that are semitransparent, highly conductive, flexible and come in a variety of colors.
Have you ever tried to peel a fresh tomato? Then you probably know that frustrating feeling when you end up with lots of little, mostly triangular pieces of skin. Of course you will also have remembered your grandma's trick to pour hot water over a tomato before skinning it; surprisingly, the skin then comes off easily in just a few large pieces. There are lots of other examples from our daily lives with similarly aggravating experiences: Frustrated by scotch tape that won't peel off the roll in a straight line? Angry at wallpaper that refuses to tear neatly off the wall? Cursing at the price sticker that doesn't come off in one piece? Or you dutifully follow the 'tear along the dotted line' instruction on a re-sealable bag only to be confronted with a tear that is anywhere but on the dotted line. Physicists, mathematicians and materials engineers love these things because it gives them a chance to explain everyday phenomena with impressive looking formulas and diagrams. Wrinkling, folding and crumpling of thin films have been characterized by experiments, theory and numerical simulations. A new study now adds a new element: fracture. The results suggest that the coupling between elasticity, adhesion and fracture, imprinted in a tear shape, can be used to evaluate mechanical properties of thin films and could even be applied at the nanoscale.
Diamonds have been known in India for at least 3000 years and are thought to have been first recognized and mined there. The most familiar usage of diamonds today is as gemstones in jewelry but, apart from being a girl's best friend, it seems that diamonds, especially nanodiamonds, are quickly becoming a scientist's best friend as well. Diamonds are the hardest natural material - the word diamond comes from the Greek term adamas, which means 'invincible' - has the lowest coefficient of thermal conductivity, is electrically insulating, chemically inert, and optically transparent. In nanoparticulate form, diamonds possess an additional property that makes them so interesting for researchers: since they are carbon-based and non-toxic they are a suitable material for drug delivery, drug diagnostics and medical imaging applications. One of the challenges in fabricating nanodiamond coatings and composite materials is the difficulty of controlling the size, texture, and crystalline quality of the diamond particles. Now, researchers in Portugal have demonstrated for the first time the facile fabrication and the conformal coating of nanocrystalline diamond onto silica nanofibers by a two-step method: synthesis of templates on silicon wafer; and coating of the silica fibers with nanocrystalline diamond.
Lithium-ion batteries seem to be everywhere these days. They power most of the electronic devices we carry around with us - cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, digital cameras and so on. They get their name from the lithium ion that moves from the anode to the cathode during discharge and from the cathode to the anode during recharging. Due to their good energy-to-weight ratios, lithium batteries are some of the most energetic rechargeable batteries available today. In terms of weight and size, batteries have become one of the limiting factors in the continuous process of developing smaller and higher performance electronic devices. To meet the demand for batteries having higher energy density and improved cycle characteristics, researchers have been making tremendous efforts to develop new electrode materials or design new structures of electrode materials. Demonstrating the benefits of directed nanostructure-design of electrode materials, Chinese scientists have prepared tin nanoparticles encapsulated in elastic hollow carbon spheres. This tin-based nanocomposite exhibits a very high specific capacity, excellent cycling performance, and therefore shows great potential as anode materials in lithium-ion batteries.
You probably have seen quite a number of research reports on the amazing climbing abilities of geckos. Here at Nanowerk, we ran several Spotlights on this topic, for instance on mimicking gecko toe structures to fabricate super-strong dry adhesives. One demonstration of so-called 'gecko tape' has already been used in building Stickybot, a quadruped robot capable of climbing smooth vertical surfaces, such as glass, acrylic and whiteboard. In addition to the animal kingdom, scientists have started looking at plants to identify biological climbing mechanisms that could be exploited for engineering applications. One obvious candidate is ivy, a climbing woody plant. Researchers now have found that ivy secretes nanoparticles which allow the plant to affix to a surface and play an important role in the plant's climbing capability. This ivy secretion mechanism may inspire new, 'green' methods for synthesizing nanoparticles biologically or new approaches to adhesion mechanisms for mechanical devices.
The past few years have seen tremendous progress in developing and fine-tuning fabrication methods for nanoparticles. An important research direction in nanoparticle synthesis is the expansion from single-component nanoparticles to hybrid nanostructures that possess two or more functional properties thanks to the integration of different materials. Multifunctional nanocarriers are a particularly hot topic in nanomedicine where it is hoped that such particles can significantly enhance the efficacy of many therapeutic and diagnostic protocols. What makes hybrid multicomponent nanostructures so alluring is not only the combination of different functionalities, but also the possibility to independently optimize the dimension and material parameters of the individual components. Apart from their multifunctionality, another advantage of these structures is that they can provide novel functions not available in single-component materials. A recent feature article provides an overview of the synthetic efforts of multicomponent hybrid nanoparticles via high-temperature solution-phase synthesis. The topics include chemical synthesis of multicomponent nanoparticles; characterization of the structural and physical properties, especially the ones arising from the interactions between different components; and potential applications of these multicomponent hybrid nanoparticles.