The fight against infections is as old as civilization. Silver, for instance, had already been recognized in ancient Greece and Rome for its infection-fighting properties and it has a long and intriguing history as an antibiotic in human health care. Modern day pharmaceutical companies developed powerful antibiotics - which also happen to be much more profitable than just plain old silver - an apparent high-tech solution to get nasty microbes such as harmful bacteria under control. However, thanks to emerging nanotechnology applications, silver is making a comeback in the form of antimicrobial nanoparticle coatings. As even the most powerful antibiotics become less and less effective, researchers have begun to re-evaluate old antimicrobial substances such as silver and as a result, antimicrobial nano-silver applications have become a very popular early commercial nanotechnology product. Researchers in China have now further advanced the nanotechnology application of silver be developing a novel multi-action nanofiber membrane containing four active components, each playing a different role in the membrane's excellent antibacterial function.
Synthetic fibers are ubiquitous in modern society and their manufacture represents a huge, multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. Synthetic fibers - carbon fibers, nylon, polyester, kevlar, spandex, etc. - are manufactured from fossil fuels, usually from oil, but sometimes from coal or natural gas. Most of these materials are not biodegradable and, in addition to their significant carbon footprint during production, they pose environmental problems at the end of their life cycle. Natural fibers, on the other hand, such as wool and cotton, come from renewable animal or plant sources but they usually lack the high-performance characteristics of many synthetic fibers. This may change, as the new field of bio-based nanomaterials promises to deliver environmentally friendly, high-performance bio-fiber materials that can replace some of the synthetic materials.
Optical imaging of materials is full with rich physical, chemical and biological information about the sample, because the optical energies in the visible range coincide with the atomic and molecular transition energies of many materials. Apart from the topographical information, the optical image therefore contains information about intrinsic properties of a material. However, the wave nature of light prevents the light to focus in a volume smaller than half of the wavelength, which is about 200-300 nm for visible light. Therefore, it is almost impossible to image nanomaterials, which could be a few nanometers in size, using optical imaging process. A typical lens made of, for example glass, will not be sufficient to image a nanomaterial. In work that gives rise to a new concept of a lens for optical imaging, scientists in Japan have proposed a lens made of silver nanorods, rather than a curved glass surface. This metallic nanolens is capable of manipulating light in such a way that an optical image of nanoscale objects can be obtained in the visible range.
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.
The vision of revolutionary bottom-up nanotechnology is based on a concept of molecular assembly technologies where nanoscale materials and structures self-assemble to microscale structures and finally to macroscopic devices and products. We are a long way from realizing this vision but researchers are busily laying the foundation for nanoscale engineering. Assembling nanoscopic components into macroscopic materials is an appealing goal but one of the enormous difficulties lies in bridging approximately six orders of magnitude that separate the nanoscale from the macroscopic world. Until machinery capable of automated and industrial-scale nano-assembly can be built, the parallelism of chemical synthesis and self-assembly is necessary when controlling materials at the nanoscale. An obvious direct approach to molecular nanotechnology therefore is to start with organic molecules as building blocks. Modest from the viewpoint of molecular manufacturing visionaries, but quite fascinating to a lot of scientists, research into nanofibers, as a modification of organic crystals, is making good progress. New research results coming out of Denmark offer the basis for a novel organic-molecule-based nanotechnological concept that allows for a multitude of applications in fundamental research and in device applications. Essentially, this concept is based on three steps: 1) directed self-assembled surface growth of nanofibers from functionalized molecules; 2) transfer and manipulation of individual fibers as well as of ordered arrays; and 3) device integration.
'Smart' is the key buzz word used by materials engineers when they describe the future of coatings, textiles, building structures, vehicles and just any material that you can think of. Materials are made 'smart' when they are engineered to have properties that change in a controlled manner under the influence of external stimuli such as mechanical stress, temperature, humidity, electric charge, magnetic fields etc. Nature of course is full with 'smart' materials that are capable of adapting to new tasks, are self-healing, and can self-assemble autonomously simply out of a solution of building blocks. Duplicating this feat with man-made materials will one day become a reality thanks to nanotechnology. Scientists not only dream about self-repairing cars or building walls that turn transparent like windows, they are actively working on the first steps towards these goals. Simple smart materials (that are not nanotechnology based) are already a reality, such as piezoelectric materials and shape memory alloys. Emerging nanotechnologies are now about to give scientists the tools to take smart materials to the next performance level. For instance, the European project Inteltex is developing a new, multifunctional textile that could be used as a wallpaper to detect temperature changes or chemical leakage or that could be used in medical and protective wear to monitor body temperature and mechanical stress. MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies works on smart surfaces that switch properties. Nanotechnology-enabled smart materials are still very early days but basic progress is being made. Another small building block towards smart materials was recently reported by Italian researchers who demonstrated photo-switchable nanofibers based on the reversible transformation between two molecular photochemical states, exhibiting different chemico-physical characteristics.
The concept of e-noses - electronic devices which mimic the olfactory systems of mammals and insects - is very intriguing to researchers involved in building better, cheaper and smaller sensor devices. A better understanding of the reception, signal transduction and odor recognition mechanisms for mammals, combined with achievements in material science, microelectronics and computer science has led to significant advances in this area. Nevertheless, the olfactory system of even the simplest insects is so complex that it is still impossible to reproduce it at the current level of technology. For example, the biological receptors are regularly replaced during the life of mammals in a very reliable way so that the receptor array does not require to be recalibrated. The performance of existing artificial electronic nose devices is much more dependent on the sensor's aging and, especially, the sensor's replacement and frequently require a recalibration to account for change. Moreover, current electronic nose devices based on metal oxide semiconductors or conducting polymers that specifically identify gaseous odorants are typically large and expensive and thus not adequate for use in micro- or nano-arrays that could mimic the performance of the natural olfactory system. Nanotechnology is seen as a key in advancing e-nose devices to a level that will match the olfactory systems developed by nature. Nanowire chemiresistors are seen as critical elements in the future miniaturization of e-noses. It is now also believed that single crystal nanowires are most stable sensing elements what will result in extending of life-time of sensors and therefore the recalibration cycle. Last year we reported on a research effort Towards The Nanoscopic Electronic Nose. Scientists involved in this effort now report a second-generation, far more advanced e-nose system based on metal oxide nanowires.
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.