Past studies of photo-responsive proteins have generally dwelled on applications for energy-saving computer displays, light-based computing or computer memory. The general theme in the research tends to rely on the controllable and quick state change of the protein. But, the ability of the protein to actually incite a physical change in a composite macroscopic system has been largely unexplored. Harnessing this ability of the protein to incite change in a polymeric material could have broad implications in the field of biomedical and materials engineering. Getting bacteriorhodopsin to 'play ball' with other bulk materials could render those materials sensitive to a light. As a stimulus, light is often much easier to control than those typically explored by researchers such as bulk pH, temperature or electric fields.
The Bronze Age technique of soldering - a process in which two or more metal items are joined together by melting and flowing a filler metal into the joint - seems to be working just fine in the nanotechnology age. Researchers in California have developed an alternative method, effectively a miniaturization of soldering, to electron beam lithography (EBL) which, so far, is the method of choice for making electrical contact to nanostructures is. Carbon nanotubes, for instance, have been soldered together by using electron beam deposited gold molecules. There is a downside to using EBL as an industrial fabrication process: commercially used dedicated e-beam writing systems are very expensive (millions of dollars per unit), the process is complex, time-consuming and not really suitable for high-volume manufacturing, and there is a risk of sample contamination build-up on the samples. Other lithography-free contacting techniques such as shadow masks have been attempted, but they have their own drawbacks and have not been widely used. The new nano-soldering technique allows to make submicron sized, Ohmic contacts to nanostructures of even single atom thickness. The technique is simple, inexpensive, rapid, and entirely avoids sample contamination.
Machines usually require various components such as bearings, gears, couplings or pistons. As machines shrink to the micro- and ultimately nanoscale, their components of course need to shrink with them. One of the major obstacles to the realization of intricate nanomachines like nanorobots is the lack of effective processes for building freestanding nanocomponents with specific shapes and sizes. Self-assembly methods produce both organic and inorganic nano-objects with high yields through 'bottom-up' approaches. The shapes, however, in most cases are confined to rather simple forms such as spheres, rods, triangles and cubes etc. and are not suitable for the elementary components of intricate nanomachines. Meanwhile, the 'top-down' approaches including electron beam lithography and micro-contact printing etc. focus on surface patterning or fabrication of suspended objects, although they can fabricate sophisticated nanostructures. So far, the fabrication and assembly of nano-objects with specific shapes and sizes that can act as elementary components for movable nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) is only at the conceptual stage. New research results coming from South Korea now offer the first step toward the realization of sophisticated nanomachines, designed to perform specific tasks, with overall dimensions comparable to those of biological cells.
An important property of polyaniline (PANi), a polymer, is its electric conductivity. This makes it suitable for the manufacture of electrically conducting fibers. Consequently, PANi and other conductive polymers have been extensively studied for optical and electronic applications and many practical syntheses of one-dimensional (1D) nanostructured PANi have already been developed. However, preparation of water-soluble, conductive PANi nanowires with controllable morphologies and sizes, especially with good processibility, is still a big challenge. A possible solution could lie in the use of self-assembled proteins, such as plant viruses, as nanotemplates for the synthesis of these nanowires. For instance, genetically modified viruses have already been proposed as templates for the assembly of nanometer-scale components of electronic circuits. Researchers now have successfully demonstrated the fabrication of water-dispersible, conductive PANi nanowires using the rod-like tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) as a template. They have also shown that much longer conductive PANi/TMV nanowires (greater than the length of a native TMV particle) can be formed by a hierarchical assembly process.
In October, Sony introduced the world's first OLED (organic light-emitting diode) television set. This The 11-inch OLED TV - although quite expensive at $1,700 - realizes an astonishing 3mm-thinness (at thinnest point) and unparalleled image quality. What makes OLEDs so attractive is that they do not require a backlight to function and therefore they draw far less power and, when powered from a battery, can operate longer on the same charge. OLED devices can be made thinner and lighter than comparable LED devices. Another major leap forward compared to current display technologies is that OLEDs can be printed onto almost any substrate with inkjet printer technology, making new applications like displays embedded in clothes or roll-up displays possible. Unfortunately there are also drawbacks to this technology, in particular its currently high manufacturing cost. A possible solution could lie in cost efficient mass production methods using printing or spraying techniques. These methods use semiconductor materials that are processed in the form of a dispersion, comprising soluble conjugated polymers or precursor molecules as well as colloidal, organic or inorganic nanoparticles. Inkjet-printing represents a powerful, economic tool for accurate deposition of liquids which is not only useful for graphics applications, but has also enormous potential for the direct writing of electronic devices. Researchers in Austria have now shown for the first time the highly reproducible ink-jet printing of semiconducting nanocrystals for the fabrication of optoelectronic devices.
We have written Spotlight after Spotlight pointing out the numerous challenges that researchers are facing with regard to nanofabrication. Uncountable research papers have been written about the numerous methods available for synthesizing nanomaterials. What today is called 'nanofabrication' deals with the issues of fabricating complex and functional nano- and microstructures by integrating these synthesized nanomaterials. To complicate matters, many of these nanomaterials are fragile, either because they are composed of a limited number of atomic layers or because they are 'soft', i.e., of biological or molecular nature. This fragile nature of some materials creates a major headache: how to integrate them at an individual level into devices without altering their structure and, consequently, their properties during device fabrication. Currently, researchers use mainly e-beam lithography and, in some cases, focused ion beam to fabricate devices which incorporate nanostructures. These methods have been proven to be very useful, for example for investigations of carbon nanotubes. However, they can not be applied on fragile nanostructures, because they damage or contaminate the structures - this could result from exposure to high energy particle beams; the requirement for lift-off steps; exposure to chemicals, etc. Researchers have now shown that individual nanostructures can be integrated into functional devices using dynamic nanostenceling which allows the integration of individual nanostructures into devices using entirely scanning probe based methods and without exposure to damaging conditions, such as high-energy charged particles, heat, or resists.
Fundamental nanotechnology research in laboratories advances rapidly, as witnessed by the hundreds of new research papers that get published every month. The big bottleneck in getting these new technologies from the lab translated into commercial products is the lack of suitable large-scale fabrication techniques. Almost all laboratory experiments involve elaborate set-ups and are quite tricky processes that require a lot of skill and expertise on part of the researchers. To a large degree, nanotechnology today is more an art than a basis for industrial technologies. Think about a 15th century monk spending 10 years painstakingly writing and painting a single bible - that's where nanotechnology is today; but where we need to get to is something that resembles modern high speed printing machines where you print thousands of books an hour. Take for instance nanowires. Researchers have used nanowires to create transistors like those used in memory devices and prototype sensors for gases or biomolecules. A common approach in the lab is to grow nanowires like blades of grass on a suitable substrate, mow them off and mix them in a fluid to transfer them to a test surface, using some method to give them a preferred orientation. When the carrier fluid dries, the nanowires are left behind like tumbled jackstraws. Using scanning probe microscopy or similar tools, researchers hunt around for a convenient, isolated nanowire to work on, or place electrical contacts without knowing the exact positions of the nanowires. It's not a technique suitable for mass production. However, researchers have now developed a technique that allows them to selectively grow nanowires on sapphire wafers in specific positions and orientations accurately enough to attach contacts and layer other circuit elements, all with conventional lithography techniques. This fabrication method requires a minimum number of steps and is compatible with today's microelectronics industry.
Some pundits writing about nanotechnology get carried away by their own hype and talk about self-assembly as if bottom-up fabrication technologies, where molecules get assembled into everyday products, are just around the corner. We took a swing at this in our Spotlight from a few days ago (Nanotechnology 'pencil sharpeners' add to researchers' nanofabrication toolbox). Today we bring you another example from the cold reality of the labs that makes clear how early stages this whole field of self-assembly really is. Today, when researchers - with both feet firmly on the ground - talk about self-assembly they mostly talk about template-assisted nanocrystal superlattices in the form of planar thin films. Bottomline is that even the controllable fabrication of highly ordered homogeneous nanostructures on surfaces remains a difficult challenge. And IBM's much touted 'self-assembling nanotechnology' (see: IBM applies self-assembling nanotechnology to conventional chip manufacturing) is nothing more than a patterning process that creates a film with trillions of holes around the on-chip wiring. Moving from a planar geometry of self-assembled nanoscale building blocks such as nanocrystals or nanotubes to a free-standing, three-dimensional multifunctional architecture is not a trivial undertaking. Researchers are just about to make the first steps to such multifunctional (still nanoscale) hierarchical architectures that both retain the properties of the nanocrystals and offer multifunctionality.