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Nanotechnology Spotlight

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Posted: Apr 29, 2010

Nanotechnology and the future of advanced materials

(Nanowerk Spotlight) A European project has completed an extensive five-year study of the needs and opportunities for coordinating future research and development in nanomaterials science and nanotechnology for the advancement of technologies ranging from communication and information, health and medicine, future energy, environment and climate change to transport and cultural heritage. Based on the collaborative work of more than 600 experts from all over the world, the project has compiled an overall picture of the present and future developments in the large spectrum of nanomaterials. Although one of the foci was to highlight the important roles of advanced analytical equipment at European research infrastructures, especially at synchrotron radiation, laser and neutron facilities, the 500-page project report provides an excellent overview of the nanomaterials revolution that is upon us. This is one of the best, up-to-date primers on nanotechnologies!
The report – the GENNESYS White Paper – is available as a free download.

Where is nanotechnology used in everyday activities

Tailoring the properties of materials on a molecular level offers the potential for improvement in device performance for applications across the entire range of human activity: from medicine to cosmetics and food, from information and communication to entertainment, from earth-bound transport to aerospace, from future energy concepts to environment and climate change, from security to cultural heritage.
Nanomaterials will lead to a radically new approach to manufacturing materials and devices. Faster computers, advanced pharmaceuticals, controlled drug delivery, biocompatible materials, nerve and tissue repair, crackproof surface coatings, better skin care and protection, more efficient catalysts, better and smaller sensors, even more efficient telecommunications, these are just some areas where nanomaterials will have a major impact.
In order to structure the large field of nanomaterials and nanotechnologies, the GENNESYS project (Grand European Initiative on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology using Neutron- and Synchrotron Radiation Sources) has subdivided the different areas of application of nanomaterials into research and technology fields. For each of these fields, the key research challenges have been defined, the roles of synchrotron, x-ray and neutron methods identified, and a research roadmap for the next two decades outlined.
For instance, the average home is already filled with products enhanced or reliant upon nanotech.
For further reading, we have compiled numerous articles on nanotechnology applications that are on the market or in development today.

Fundamental research: Generic challenges

Fundamental research into nanomaterials behavior is an essential prerequisite for generating the necessary scientific understanding of how nanostructures can be designed, synthesized and modeled. The complexity of this research demands advanced and high-performance analytical techniques to enhance the development and optimization of the size, shape, structure and performance of nanomaterials.
Synthesis of nanomaterials and nanostructures
The challenges for nanomaterials synthesis lie in the design and tailoring of complex hybrid nanoparticles and 'intelligent' or 'smart' nanomaterials (nanotubes, functionalized surfaces, multi-layers, novel thin films and interfaces) with multiple functions for urgent applications.
Nanomaterials phenomena and functions
Nanomaterials exploit physical phenomena and mechanisms that cannot be derived by simply scaling down the associated bulk structures and bulk phenomena. Surface phenomena will become more and more important compared to bulk phenomena. Furthermore, new quantum effects come into play which changes the way nano systems work. It is the exploitation of these emerging nanoscale interactions which underpins all nanomaterials design.
It is an essential challenge to understand the behavior of given materials on all length scales, from the nanostructure up to the macroscopic response; and at timescales ranging from pico- and sub-picoseconds in molecular and electronic relaxation processes to micro- and nanoseconds in self-assembly processes, to days for long-term relaxation and degradation. The analytical access to this range of length and timescales, from the ultrashort to the ultralong, will be a future challenge for accelerator based x-ray and neutron technologies in combination with complementary techniques.
Nanomaterials modeling
Modeling and computer-based materials design algorithms will become mandatory tools in testing our understanding of nanoscale processes and phenomena, which can be used in the development of tailored synthesis of nanomaterials, inhibition of degradation processes, and the planning of experimental programs for nanomaterials development and assessment. For that reason, dedicated characterization tools are needed, both to adjust model parameters and to check that the theory works or is correctly implemented in computer codes for simulation models.
There will be an increasing need to enhance our theoretical understanding of why particular phenomena arise in order to optimize synthetic processes, explain the mechanisms that lead to material degradation, and predict how nanomaterials properties can be improved. New ab initio models, where fundamental physical principles are used to predict the behavior of materials at the nanoscale, will take advantage of the increased computing power available.

Nanomaterials design

In nanomaterials science, the development of new materials drives many fields of engineering; i.e. alloys with improved mechanical properties and reduced weight, e.g. to increase stiffness and at the same time save weight in aerospace or automotive industries. Composite materials follow the same trend, many of them mimicking the structure of biological tissues like wood, bone, shell, spider silk and many more examples. The use of such new nanomaterials will be essential to address major future global demands such as reducing energy consumption or the ecological impact of almost any product we use.
Structural nanomaterials
These materials based on metallic, ceramic and polymer systems will provide a step change in mechanical and thermal properties. They will be the basis for a wide range of innovations and new applications exploiting nanoscale effects.
Functional or 'smart' materials
They will drive forward developments in electronic, photonic, structural and magnetic devices. Nanomaterials will raise the development to a new level, employing novel physical, electrical and mechanical effects to make electronics which will be faster, lighter, cheaper, and easier to manufacture, and which will have low power consumption. Simple devices based on nanomaterials will deliver functions which would ordinarily require a more complex mechanism or component, such as the replacement of electrical connections by optical links and improved non-volatile computer memory. Designing materials operation in stringent environments (temperature, pressure, radiation etc.) is also needed.
Polymer nanomaterials
They will advance dramatically as the chemical and nanoscale structures of polymers are engineered to create new polymers with a multitude of structural and functional applications, ranging from polymers with improved biodegradability to new adhesives and novel electrical conductors. Biopolymers for the life sciences will use the principles of hierarchical assembly in living organisms and apply them to engineered materials and structures.
Nanostructured coatings, composites and hybrids
These can be engineered to exploit a revolutionary combination of tailored properties, between coating and substrate, between composite matrix and reinforcement, and between the different components of a hybrid.

Engineering properties of nanomaterials

There will be significant challenges in transferring the knowledge of new nanomaterials properties and mechanisms into the engineering design process, as we are not yet at the stage where nanomaterials can be designed and produced with known properties.
Understanding is required of how nanomaterials can be joined without destroying their nanostructure and their function, how nanomaterials fail through corrosion, creep and fatigue, and how nanotribological mechanisms affect friction, adhesion, wear and lubrication.
The overall lifecycle of the component must be assessed and understood, if accurate predictions are to be made. This could be demonstrated by monitoring in-situ the crack propagation along grain boundaries in steel alloys during corrosion using synchrotron radiation. This is extremely relevant to understand the mechanisms of material failure due to cracking of stainless steel under mechanical stress.
The study has highlighted potential techniques for nanojoining methodologies and technologies, and pinpointed research paths for successful development. Understanding the reliability and strength of nanoscale and nanostructured joints in-service is a great challenge. Existing knowledge and methods for large-scale welding and joining cannot be extrapolated to new methods and nanoscale effects.
The study of friction, wear and adhesion at the nanometer scale requires knowledge of surface interactions, chemical environment effects, lubrication, mechanical stresses, as well as biochemical concepts. This field is rapidly developing, but most of the applications that can be realized exploiting nanotribological ideas are still in an embryonic stage.
Life cycle of nanomaterials
The lifetime of an operating nano-architecture is limited by fracture, fatigue, creep, corrosion that will differ significantly from those that operate in ‘conventional’ structural materials. A mechanistic understanding of the damage mechanisms operating at the nanoscale, obtained using in situ synchrotron radiation and neutron experimentation, will be critical to generate the knowledge base needed for the reliable application of nanomaterials in engineering applications. The understanding of nano damage mechanisms is needed as input in simulation models.

Challenges in nanomaterials technologies

The GENNESYS study highlights the enormous potential impact of nanomaterials for new technologies. The opportunities for nanomaterials research and development have been defined for a broad spectrum of technological application areas to deliver unprecedented impact in fields encompassing faster information exchange and new multi-functional computer systems enhanced healthcare, with new drugs through bio-nanotechnologies and nanotherapies in medicine; more energy-efficient transport encompassing light-weight structural materials; reduced pollution and carbon emissions; and technologies for safety and risk reduction. The goal is the enhancement of these technologies for improved quality of life, through the development and production of new materials with novel properties. These breakthroughs critically rely upon advancing our fundamental knowledge of nanomaterials.
Information Technology
The future prosperity of the information technology industry strongly depends on further successful down-scaling processes, creating new devices with higher functionalities, greater flexibility and reliability, and improved performance. Nanoscience and -technology will provide important basic approaches for improved functionalities and new device concepts. The new nanoelectronics will give a step change in functionality – higher speeds, reduced power consumption, reduced complexity – that will provide novel computer, photonics and informatics applications over the next 20 years.
In microelectronics and photonics, new developments such as quantum communication and computing, data storage using new materials, and concepts such as magnetic semiconductors and spintronics, will revolutionize capabilities. Most of these concepts are based on nanostructures, and in most of these cases structural studies using synchrotron and neutron sources are essential.
Health: biological and medical applications
The entire scope where nanomaterials impact human health, through medicine, dentistry, cosmetics, food and agriculture, has been evaluated. The healthcare industry is dependent on drugs and drug delivery systems for disease control and improving the quality of life. New drug systems with controlled release can be developed using nanoengineering, and the delivery of drugs into the human body is much simplified by exploiting nanoscale effects i.e. delivering just the amount of drugs necessary to patients allows decreasing the amount of drugs and the impact of pollution since the excess is often released in the environment.New ointments which exploit nanoscale binders will have offshoots into the cosmetics industry, which will be able to exploit the research and development needed for the full exploitation of nanomaterials in healthcare.
Nutrition is critically important for health and the quality of life. Increasing demands for more efficient food production and processing, the possibility of engineering foodstuffs for improved nutrition, and the development of foodstuffs designed to be suitable for people with allergies or nutritional disorders will all require a step change in our ability to manipulate the structure of materials at the nanoscale. In particular, being able to formulate foods which can be successfully processed is of fundamental importance.
Manufacturing engineering
Nanomaterials have to meet the demands facing new structural materials, reduced energy consumption, and reduced life-cycle costs.
Advances include reduced fuel consumption and operating costs, reduced or zero emissions, improved capacity and comfort and reduced noise. Breakthroughs in nanomaterials engineering depend on how precise we can “see” the relevant structures and how they change during a process. This puts serious demands on tailored analytical tools ranging from diffraction, imaging, microscopy, tomography and spectroscopy with highest spatial resolution (<50 nm).
Many ‘traditional’ materials embody the principles of nanomaterials engineering in developing their structure at the nanoscale. There are still significant advances to be made in many fields of metallurgy.
Nanomaterials in energy technologies
Climate change and the security of energy supply are two of the most pressing concerns facing both developed and developing countries alike. To tackle energy consumption and associated problems, no other way than using renewable sources and developing nuclear energy will be possible in the medium to long term. Saving energy and an efficient use of it are the basic requirements in this evolution.
Research infrastructure for energy materials
Research infrastructure for energy materials. (Source: GENNESYS White Paper)
The potential impact that nanomaterials can make in this area is truly enormous. If current projections are correct, they could achieve transformational changes in the way we convert and use energy, providing a sustainable, clean, efficient and above all decarbonized energy system.
The study of materials for energy is extremely broad and covers a very diverse set of materials embracing functional, chemical and electronic energy materials. Development of nanomaterials for these applications will require, for all the different materials types, the probing of structure at all length and time scales. Read pur primer on nanotechnology in energy.
In natural and man-made environment, nanotechnology will help to solve problems like soil and groundwater remediation, air purification, pollution detection and sensing. The same is true for man-made waste reduction including nuclear waste which also requires developing safe geological disposal with methods acceptable for society. A better prediction of climate change is directly linked to the understanding of the role of aerosols (nanoparticles) in the atmosphere. Read pur primer on nanotechnology and the environment.
Security and safety
Nanotechnology will bring new answers to the prevention and protection against terrorism threats, or against natural and industrial accidental risks. Nanotechnology will also provide efficient response to the security and safety of critical installations and the environment.

Nanometrology research and standardization

A new generation of nanomaterials will require a new concept of measurement techniques for the characterization and the determination of their physical properties. These nanostandardization methods will also become increasingly important in proving validation of novel measurement techniques in order to assure their reproducibility, quality, robustness and accuracy. Alongside the development of any new measurement technique, it is vital that it is applied in a standard, reproducible way. Modern industry relies heavily on standardization of measurement, processes, methods and products, and on the use of Standard Reference Materials.
Good practice in metrology requires standardization of any new or improved measurement techniques, standardization in information and data reporting and interpretation, and globally-accepted standards for measurement. All of these are critically important for the study of properties and structures at the nanoscale.

Impact, influence and benefits for society

Nanomaterials will bring benefits throughout society and its activities:
  • In economy, science and technology are the principal drivers of economic growth and quality of life. Research, particularly nanomaterials research, has widespread impact in health, information, energy, and many other fields where there is major economic benefit to the commercialization of new technologies.
  • Concerning energy efficiency, nanomaterials research will have a great impact, as new nanomaterials will allow higher temperatures and hence a more efficient operation of power plants, and enable the development of new energy production systems based on nuclear, solar, and renewable sources.
  • In medicine and health care, nanomaterials will provide new drugs and new therapies, and cures for currently chronic and fatal illnesses. Important areas of research will be the application of nanomaterials in tissue engineering and medical imaging. The potential application of nanotechnologies has immense capability and promise for advanced diagnostics, improved public health and new therapeutic treatments.
  • Nanomaterials technology will reach large-scale production if one or more of the three following conditions are fulfilled:
  • Nanomaterials give the same performance as conventional materials at a reduced cost;
  • Nanomaterials give a better performance at the same cost or a price marginally higher;
  • Apart from the unquestionable benefits, the risks associated with nanoscale materials have also to be addressed. History has shown that new science and technology often cause fear and misunderstanding in society. This holds also and in particular for the field of nanomaterials, because their developments also constitute ‘unknown’ and invisible aspects. Nanomaterials processing techniques can be dangerous for health and studies on animals have demonstrated this. Great research efforts should be made to investigate health impacts and methods to prevent them.
    The first International GENNESYS Congress on Nanotechnology and Research Infrastructures will be held in Barcelona from May 26-28, 2010 and make key recommendations on how to structure and organize nanomaterials development in Europe and to promote a new culture in the world of nanomaterials in which research-discoveries will smoothly be transferred into industrial innovations by human-resource networks around modern research infrastructure platforms.
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