Individual nanoscale building blocks, such as nanoparticles, nanosheets, nanowires or nanotubes display unique and unusually impressive mechanical properties. These mechanical properties of nanomaterials cannot be extrapolated from their bulk properties and scientists are still busily exploring the nanoscale behavior of various materials. Once the nanoscale properties of a material are known, the next problem is how to practically exploit certain properties and transfer them back into a macro structure of a bulk material. Materials engineers would love to transfer the exceptional mechanical properties such as tensile strength and Young's modulus (a measure of stiffness that reflects the resistance of a material to elongation) of nanoscale materials into nanocomposites that then cold be used to build much tougher, lighter and flexible materials than anything we know today - say a paper thin sheet of nanocomposite material that is transparent, flexible, yet as strong as steel. So far, effective load transfer and homogenous dispersion appear to be the key issues in order to take advantage of the extraordinary properties of nanomaterials for mechanical reinforcement applications. New research coming out of the University of Michigan has resulted in nanocomposite materials with a very high content of inorganic component and nearly perfect stress transfer. The stiffness and tensile strength of these multilayer composites are an order of magnitude greater than those of analogous nanocomposites at a processing temperature that is much lower than those of ceramic or polymer materials with similar characteristics.
Modern nanotechnology researchers not only borrow extensively from nature to develop new materials and fabrication techniques, they also manage to transfer proven, and sometimes ancient, technologies into their nanotechnology laboratories. We've written about this before in our stories about welding ("Bronze Age technique works just fine in the nanotechnology era") and metal forging ("From Bronze Age shack to nanotechnology lab - metal forging techniques reach the bottom"). Today, our story deals with yet another ur-technology: spinning. Spinning is the process of creating yarn (or thread, rope, cable) from various raw fiber materials. The first spinning wheel was invented in India probably some 2,500-3,000 years ago, although some claim that the Chinese used similar devices as long as almost 5,000 years ago to spin silk threads. While spinning is one of the core technology foundations of our civilization, researchers have now begun to apply cotton-spinning techniques to fabricate carbon nanotube (CNT) "yarn."
Shuttles - whether the space shuttle, an airport shuttle bus, or a loom shuttle - basically do one thing: they transport cargo (astronauts, passengers, thread) from one point to another on a controlled route. Although not always called shuttles, the basic concept is critical to modern transportation systems and is used by nearly every society. The concept of the shuttle has been used for centuries from Egyptian barges to Roman railways and canals. Even before these inventions, however, nature employed molecular shuttles in biological organisms. In molecular shuttles, kinesin proteins propel cargo (such as organelles) along hollow tubes called microtubules. Cells use these motors to transport cargo to highly specific destinations, in order to regulate levels of macromolecules and processes, much like a train along a track. Using biological motors to transport and precisely distribute cargo requires a clear understanding of how molecular shuttles pick up and deliver specific payload. However, scientists are challenged by the need to better control the interactions along the route so that the cargo remains on the line when not needed, but when it is needed, can be picked up and transported to a specific location. Researchers in Switzerland have now built nanoscale cargo loading stations and shuttles, an important step towards assembly lines for nanotechnology.
Bridges are exciting to cross, incredible works of engineering and they have made it possible for us to travel more easily, quickly and safely. The U.S. Congress even approved $400 million to build a bridge to nowhere. While bridges have been, and still are, essential components in every society's infrastructure, the bridge concept is becoming interesting to nanotechnology researchers as well. Nanomaterial air bridges enable nanoscale structures to be suspended as a two-point beam, creating a nanomechanical element that is isolated from a variety of substrate effects, including adhesion, temperature, conductivity, and parasitic capacitance. The bridge-like suspension makes nanoscale structures accessible along their length, which is beneficial for examining ehmt but also for device construction. It also allows nearfield probing, manipulation, and actuation of these suspended nanostructures. Scientists at the University of Louisville have found a way to build nanomaterial air bridges simply and conveniently.
Back in the early 1800's it was observed that certain chemicals can speed up a chemical reaction - a process that became known as catalysis and that has become the foundation of the modern chemical industry. By some estimates 90% of all commercially produced chemical products involve catalysts at some stage in the process of their manufacture. Catalysis is the acceleration of a chemical reaction by means of a substance, called a catalyst, which is itself not consumed by the overall reaction. The most effective catalysts are usually transition metals or transition metal complexes. An everyday example of catalysis is the catalytic converter in your car which is used to reduce the toxicity of emissions from your car's engine. Here the catalysts are platinum and manganese which for instance convert harmful nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrogen and oxygen. Since catalysts provide a surface for the chemical reaction to take place on, nanoparticles with their extremely large surface area have become much researched as catalysts (as particles get smaller the larger their surface to volume ratio becomes). Especially in heterogeneous catalysis - where the catalyst is in a different phase (ie. solid, liquid and gas) to the reactants, and that is largely influenced by surface properties - use of nanoscale catalysts opens up a number of possibilities of improving catalytic activity and selectivity. Unfortunately, heterogeneous catalysts supported on a carrier prepared using traditional methods (e.g., impregnation) suffer from a number of problems, such as particle aggregation during preparation, sintering during use (especially at high temperatures), and catalyst leaching because of solvent or pressure drop. This is associated with the poor contact of the catalyst particle with the support surface. A new method of catalyst preparation coming out of Singapore may offer a new concept for catalyst optimization.
Just kidding - I always wanted to write a tabloid headline like that! In case you are expecting a story on the mysteries of crop circles caused by alien nanotechnology - stop reading right here; but the analogy is just too striking when you look at the amazing images coming out of the labs at the University of Southern California, where they developed a new technique to create three-dimensional carbon nanotube structures. While carbon nanotubes possess many exceptional properties which far exceed most known bulk materials, creating controlled nanotube (CNT) microstructures has always been a challenge. Overcoming this challenge is going to be key in developing useful and commercially viable CNT devices. Existing techniques for patterning three-dimensional CNT structures are based on the bottom-up growth of multiwalled CNTs (MWCNTs) from a patterned catalyst, which is limited to 2D-like geometries. Other, complex 3D microstructures have been fabricated with polymer-based resin materials but not with CNTs. The new technique developed by researchers in California uses a focused laser beam to selectively burn local regions of a dense forest of MWCNTs. This technique enables chemically sensitive fields to take advantage of nanotubes' exceptional properties and expand their possible applications into new areas.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are a type of rechargeable battery commonly used in consumer electronics. They are currently one of the most popular types of battery for portable electronics, with one of the best capacity-to-weight ratios, no memory effect, and a slow loss of charge when not in use. Lithium is useful in batteries because of its lightness (it is the lightest metal) and because of the high voltage of the redox reaction between Li and Li+. In lithium ion batteries, a layered compound - lithium copper oxide or or lithium nickel oxide - is utilized as a cathode. Although this material can provide high capacity, its charging/discharging rates are slow because these processes include the absorption/desorption of lithium in the cathode. Recently, organic radical batteries have been developed as a new type of rechargeable battery, in which organic radical polymers are utilized as a cathode active material. They achieved a very fast chargeable/dischargeable rate, though their capacities are lower than those of the lithium ion batteries. A lot of research has gone into fabricating lithium batteries that achieve both high capacity and fast charging/discharging. Researchers in Japan came up with a completely new idea - the molecular cluster battery - where the cathode active material is a well-known manganese molecular cluster that is stable and insoluble to most solvents and exhibits a multi-step redox reaction. Although the battery was rechargeable, in early experiments the fast charging–discharging was not yet achieved due to the chemical decomposition of the cluster. Nevertheless, this is a first step that opens up a new branch of research into high-performance rechargeable molecular cluster batteries.
Probably any chemist must have dreamt about it: Quick isolation of a chemical from a reaction mixture without the hassle of tedious liquid handling lasting for hours. The problem is that today the product separation and postprocessing of organic compounds, proteins, nucleic acids, and natural products from complex reaction mixtures remains labor-intensive and costly. Catalytic processes in the liquid phase are important in many areas of the fine and specialty chemicals industries, and the use of solid catalysts means easier catalyst separation and recovery, hence facilitating their reuse. Usually a smaller catalyst particles means a higher activity, and sub micron particles are particularly attractive because they experience no significant attrition, i.e. no reduction in particle size. A major difficultly with small particles is the cumbersome fact that they are almost impossible to separate by conventional means, which can lead to the blocking of filters and valves by the catalyst. A possible solution to this problem is the magnetic separation of products from mixtures, as routinely applied in biochemistry. Unfortunately, the exorbitant price of magnetic microbeads and their low binding capacity limit their use for organic synthesis. Researchers in Switzerland, have now found a way to link organic molecules to metallic nanomagnets. This allows separating tagged molecules or reagents after synthesis within seconds. The technology is now explored in organic chemistry and biotechnology as an alternative to chromatography or crystallization. Combining classical organic synthesis or polymer production with magnetic separation could potentially revolutionize key processes in the chemical industry.