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Nanomaterials and Nanoscience
Nanoscale in Two Dimensions
Two dimensional nanomaterials such as tubes and wires have generated considerable interest among the scientific community in recent years. In particular, their novel electrical and mechanical properties are the subject of intense research.
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) were first observed by Sumio Iijima in 1991. CNTs are extended tubes of rolled graphene sheets. There are two types of CNT: single-walled (one tube) or multi-walled (several concentric tubes). Both of these are typically a few nanometres in diameter and several micrometres to centimetres long. CNTs have assumed an important role in the context of nanomaterials, because of their novel chemical and physical properties. They are mechanically very strong (their Young’s modulus is over 1 terapascal, making CNTs as stiff as diamond), flexible (about their axis), and can conduct electricity extremely well (the helicity of the graphene sheet determines whether the CNT is a semiconductor or metallic). All of these remarkable properties give CNTs a range of potential applications: for example, in reinforced composites, sensors, nanoelectronics and display devices.
Watch an animation of various nanotubes and a fullerene (buckyball):
CNTs are now available commercially in limited quantities. They can be grown by several techniques. However, the selective and uniform production of CNTs with specific dimensions and physical properties is yet to be achieved. The potential similarity in size and shape between CNTs and asbestos fibres has led to concerns about their safety.
Inorganic nanotubes and inorganic fullerene-like materials based on layered compounds such as molybdenum disulphide were discovered shortly after CNTs. They have excellent tribological (lubricating) properties, resistance to shockwave impact, catalytic reactivity, and high capacity for hydrogen and lithium storage, which suggest a range of promising applications. Oxide-based nanotubes (such as titanium dioxide) are being explored for their applications in catalysis, photo-catalysis and energy storage.
Nanowires are ultrafine wires or linear arrays of dots, formed by self-assembly. They can be made from a wide range of materials. Semiconductor nanowires made of silicon, gallium nitride and indium phosphide have demonstrated remarkable optical, electronic and magnetic characteristics (for example, silica nanowires can bend light around very tight corners).
Nanowires have potential applications in high-density data storage, either as magnetic read heads or as patterned storage media, and electronic and opto-electronic nanodevices, for metallic interconnects of quantum devices and nanodevices.
The preparation of these nanowires relies on sophisticated growth techniques, which include selfassembly processes, where atoms arrange themselves naturally on stepped surfaces, chemical vapour deposition (CVD) onto patterned substrates, electroplating or molecular beam epitaxy (MBE). The ‘molecular beams’ are typically from thermally evaporated elemental sources.
The variability and site recognition of biopolymers, such as DNA molecules, offer a wide range of opportunities for the self-organization of wire nanostructures into much more complex patterns. The DNA backbones may then, for example, be coated in metal. They also offer opportunities to link nano- and biotechnology in, for example, biocompatible sensors and small, simple motors.
Such self-assembly of organic backbone nanostructures is often controlled by weak interactions, such as hydrogen bonds, hydrophobic, or van der Waals interactions (generally in aqueous environments) and hence requires quite different synthesis strategies to CNTs, for example.
The combination of one-dimensional nanostructures consisting of biopolymers and inorganic compounds opens up a number of scientific and technological opportunities.