Nanotechnology manufacturing key to industrialized countries' future competitiveness

(Nanowerk Spotlight) An Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Manufacturing Research and Development established by the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) has identified three technology areas as key research and development priorities for future manufacturing: Manufacturing R&D for Hydrogen Technologies; Nanomanufacturing; and Intelligent and Integrated Manufacturing. The Working Group summarized their findings in a new report titled "Manufacturing the Future" (pdf). Although this report is specific to the U.S., most of its general conclusions and recommendations apply to most other industrialized nations and their industrial nanotechnology efforts as well.
Nanotechnology is viewed throughout the world as a critical driver of future economic growth and as a means to addressing some of humanity’s most vexing challenges (e.g. energy, environment, health). Because of its broad range of prospective uses, nanotechnology has the potential to impact virtually every industry, from aerospace and energy to healthcare and agriculture.
Nanomanufacturing R&D integrates science and engineering knowledge and develops new processes and systems to assure quality nanomaterials, to control the assembly of molecular-scale elements, and to predictably incorporate nanoscale elements into nano-, micro-, and macroscale products utilizing new design methods and tools. Efforts in this area are directed toward enabling the mass production of reliable and affordable nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. Nanomanufacturing includes the integration of ultra-miniaturized top-down processes and evolving bottom-up or self-assembly processes.
The IWG cites the three manufacturing areas it covers in its report as being important to U.S. economic and national security. It identifies these areas as potentially leveraging scientific and technological advances to transform knowledge and materials into valuable products. Much of this research falls under the American Competitiveness Initiative, a government-funded mandate to increase investments in R&D, education and entrepreneurship. These manufacturing areas also correspond to existing priorities established by the federal government through the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program.
"Our objective was to focus on issues of national importance, and to identify manufacturing areas that have the potential to deliver major benefits to the economy," said David Stieren, executive secretary of the group that produced the report and technology deployment manager of the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership. "These benefits include creating new jobs, enhancing manufacturing competitiveness and making progress toward accomplishing major national goals,” he said.
The IWG states that its efforts in nanomanufacturing complement the continuing nanomanufacturing efforts organized under the NNI. The IWG looks to align nanomanufacturing activities with other federal manufacturing programs and to serve as a forum for joint program planning in nanomanufacturing. The IWG also draws upon enterprise-level manufacturing research and other advanced development expertise common to a broad array of manufacturing enterprises. This expertise ranges from supply chains to methods and tools to design integrated products, to the infrastructure to assure the producibility and predictability of nanoscale products, and the productivity of nanomanufacturing processes and enterprises.
The IWG report defines nanomanufacturing as all manufacturing activities that collectively support practical approaches to designing, producing, controlling, modifying, manipulating, and assembling nanoscale elements or features for the purpose of realizing products or systems that exploit properties seen at the nanoscale. In order for nanomaterials to be mass produced reliably and affordably, scientists and engineers have to overcome hurdles relative to developing top-down processes (miniaturizing devices and structures to their smallest possible sizes) and bottom-up approaches (building nanostructures and nanodevices from the ground up by using tiny building blocks).
Reflecting the very early stage of nanomanufacturing efforts, there is a need for the development of a metrology infrastructure for nanotechnology, especially with respect to establishing standards and to supporting successful commercialization of R&D. The report points out that instrumentation and metrology are vital aspects of manufacturing, and it will be important that the nanomanufacturing R&D community will work closely with the instrumentation and metrology community.
In the U.S., the NNI has recognized the need to establish user facilities that make often costly, state-of-the-art instrumentation available to all researchers. In addition, to supporting large-scale, multidisciplinary research, including for nanomanufacturing, the NNI has funded a number of research centers. The resulting infrastructure is geographically distributed and, in the case of user facilities, available to the broad research community. Several nanomanufacturing-related research center and user facilities are highlighted in the report:
  • IST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST)
  • DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs)
  • NSF National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN)
  • NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs)
  • Systematic control and manufacture at the nanoscale are envisioned to evolve in four overlapping generations of new nanotechnology product types that start with nanoscale building blocks and evolve through complex heterogeneous systems. Each anticipated generation of products will provide a nanotechnology base for further innovation, leading to succeeding generations of products of increasing complexity and functionality:
    First Generation (beginning ∼2000): passive nanostructures, illustrated by nanostructured coatings, nanoparticles, dispersion of nanoparticles, nanocomposites, and bulk nanostructured materials — nanostructures made of metals, polymers, ceramics; bio-building blocks.
    Second Generation (beginning ∼2005): active nanostructures, illustrated by transistors, amplifiers, targeted drugs and chemicals, biological and non-biological sensors, actuators, and adaptive structures.
    Third Generation (beginning ∼2010): three-dimensional nanosystems and systems of nanosystems using various synthesis and assembly techniques such as bio-assembly, networking at the nanoscale, and multiscale architectures.
    Fourth Generation (beginning ∼2015): materials by design and heterogeneous molecular nanosystems, where each molecule in the nanosystem has a specific structure and plays a different role. Molecules will be used as devices, and from their engineered structures and architectures will emerge fundamentally new functions. Since the path from fundamental discovery to nanotechnology applications takes about 10–12 years in recent nanotechnology developments, now is the time to begin exploratory research in 3D integrated, heterogeneous devices, structures, and systems that involve materials by design and molecular nanosystems.
    Delivering the many anticipated nanotechnology products of the future will require entirely new manufacturing processes. These include cost-effective methods for synthesizing and processing nanotubes, particles, fibers, and quantum dots; nanotube dispersion in nanocomposites; atomic-layer deposition for nanoelectronics; positioning, imaging, and measurement at nanoscale resolution; and modeling of material-energy interactions and manufacturing processes from nanoscale to macroscale. Several of these manufacturing processes are currently being realized, and they will need to be refined continuously to fully realize the promise of future nanotechnology products. The report addresses the four key challenges in material and manufacturing processes:
  • Scale-up and modular nanomaterial building blocks
  • Integrating bottom-up and top-down nanoscale assembly processes
  • Combining multiple assembly processes
  • Moving beyond optical-resolution probing and metrology
  • The IWG points out that the three research sectors covered in its report are also interdependent. For example, the design and cost-effective production of nanomaterials to store hydrogen may be critical to our country’s transition away from an oil-dependent transportation system. Also, intelligent, flexible manufacturing may reduce the time and cost of incorporating nanoscale components into real world applications, according to the report. Finally, the three research sectors offer an opportunity to contribute to sustainable manufacturing by incorporating materials, processes, and systems that use energy and materials effectively and use environmentally preferable materials.
    While most of the report's section on nanomanufacturing is of a technical nature, it also raises a number of important societal issues arising from the widespread implications that will result from moving the industrial base towards nanomanufacturing:
  • What will new nanomanufacturing enterprises look like, and what steps are needed to create them? What new industries will result?
  • What impact will these new processes, systems, and industries have on our current industrial base?
  • What will be the skill sets required for a technically literate workforce and the corresponding infrastructure for education?
  • What will be the size of a typical nanomanufacturing enterprise, and how will such enterprises be distributed?
  • Will products be high-volume, low-value; or low-volume, high-value; or a mix; and will the new industries be transformative?
  • What are the potential environmental implications of nanotechnology and nanomanufacturing, and how might those implications affect investment?
  • With the potential creation of new industries, what economic, health, safety, national security, and sustainability issues should be anticipated — and what proactive measures should be taken to address those issues?
  • And, ultimately, what will be the benefits of creating the new industries and how can those anticipated benefits be optimized?
  • Michael Berger By – Michael is author of three books by the Royal Society of Chemistry:
    Nano-Society: Pushing the Boundaries of Technology,
    Nanotechnology: The Future is Tiny, and
    Nanoengineering: The Skills and Tools Making Technology Invisible
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