Our comprehensive introduction to nanotechnology and nanoscience
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Although a broad definition, we categorise nanomaterials as those which have structured components with at least one dimension less than 100nm.
Dimensions of nanomaterials
Materials that have one dimension in the nanoscale (and are extended in the other two dimensions) are layers, such as graphene, thin films or surface coatings. Some of the features on computer chips come in this category.
Materials that are nanoscale in two dimensions (and extended in one dimension) include nanowires and nanotubes. Materials that are nanoscale in three dimensions are particles, for example precipitates, colloids and quantum dots (tiny particles of semiconductor materials). Nanocrystalline materials, made up of nanometer-sized grains, also fall into this category.
Some of these materials have been available for some time; others are genuinely new. The aim of this chapter is to give an overview of the properties, and the significant foreseeable applications of some key nanomaterials.
The key differences between nanomaterials and bulk materials
Two principal factors cause the properties of nanomaterials to differ significantly from other materials: increased relative surface area, and quantum effects. These factors can change or enhance properties such as reactivity, strength and electrical characteristics.
As a particle decreases in size, a greater proportion of atoms are found at the surface compared to those inside. For example, a particle of size 30 nm has 5% of its atoms on its surface, at 10 nm 20% of its atoms, and at 3 nm 50% of its atoms.
Thus nanoparticles have a much greater surface area per unit mass compared with larger particles. As growth and catalytic chemical reactions occur at surfaces, this means that a given mass of material in nanoparticulate form will be much more reactive than the same mass of material made up of larger particles.
To understand the effect of particle size on surface area, consider an American Silver Eagle coin. This silver dollar contains 31 grams of coin silver and has a total surface area of approximately 3000 square millimeters. If the same amount of coin silver were divided into tiny particles – say 10 nanometer in diameter – the total surface area of those particles would be 7000 square meters (which is equal to the size of a soccer field – or larger than the floor space of the White House, which is 5100 square meters). In other words: when the amount of coin silver contained in a silver dollar is rendered into 10 nm particles, the surface area of those particles is over 2 million times greater than the surface area of the silver dollar!
Properties of nanomaterials
In tandem with surface-area effects, quantum effects can begin to dominate the properties of matter as size is reduced to the nanoscale. These can affect the optical, electrical and magnetic behaviour of materials, particularly as the structure or particle size approaches the smaller end of the nanoscale. Materials that exploit these effects include quantum dots, and quantum well lasers for optoelectronics.
For other materials such as crystalline solids, as the size of their structural components decreases, there is much greater interface area within the material; this can greatly affect both mechanical and electrical properties.
For example, most metals are made up of small crystalline grains; the boundaries between the grain slow down or arrest the propagation of defects when the material is stressed, thus giving it strength. If these grains can be made very small, or even nanoscale in size, the interface area within the material greatly increases, which enhances its strength. For example, nanocrystalline nickel is as strong as hardened steel.
Understanding surfaces and interfaces is a key challenge for those working on nanomaterials, and one where new imaging and analysis instruments are vital.