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Nano Materials

(University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)



- Nanotechnology and The Future

Nanoscale particles are not new in either nature or science. However, the recent leaps in areas such as microscopy have given scientists new tools to understand and take advantage of phenomena that occur naturally when matter is organized at the nanoscale. In essence, these phenomena are based on "quantum effects" and other simple physical effects such as expanded surface area. 

In addition, the fact that a majority of biological processes occur at the nanoscale gives scientists models and templates to imagine and construct new processes that can enhance their work in medicine, imaging, computing, printing, chemical catalysis, materials synthesis, and many other fields. Nanotechnology is not simply working at ever smaller dimensions; rather, working at the nanoscale enables scientists to utilize the unique physical, chemical, mechanical, and optical properties of materials that naturally occur at that scale.


- What is a Nanomaterial?

Nanomaterials are chemical substances or materials that are manufactured and used at a very small scale. Nanomaterials are developed to exhibit novel characteristics compared to the same material without nanoscale features, such as increased strength, chemical reactivity or conductivity.  

ISO (2015) defines a nanomaterial as a material with any external dimension in the nanoscale (size range from approximately 1 – 100 nm) or having internal structure or surface structure in the nanoscale. 

Nanomaterials that are naturally occurring (e.g., volcanic ash, soot from forest fires) or are generated as incidental (unintentional) by-products of combustion processes (e.g., welding, diesel engines) are usually physically and chemically heterogeneous and often termed ‘ultrafine particles’. Engineered nanomaterials, on the other hand, are intentionally produced and designed with physical-chemical properties for a specific purpose or function.


- What are the Uses of Nanomaterials?

Due to the ability to generate the materials in a particular way to play a specific role, the use of nanomaterials spans across various industries, from healthcare and cosmetics to environmental preservation and air purification.  

The healthcare field, for example, utilises nanomaterials in a variety of ways, with one major use being drug delivery. One example of this process is whereby nanoparticles are being developed to assist the transportation of chemotherapy drugs directly to cancerous growths, as well as to deliver drugs to areas of arteries that are damaged in order to fight cardiovascular disease. Carbon nanotubes are also being developed in order to be used in processes such as the addition of antibodies to the nanotubes to create bacteria sensors.
In aerospace, carbon nanotubes can be used in the morphing of aircraft wings. The nanotubes are used in a composite form to bend in response to the application of an electric voltage. 

Elsewhere, environmental preservation processes make use of nanomaterials too - in this case, nanowires. Applications are being developed to use the nanowires - zinc oxide nanowires- in flexible solar cells as well as to play a role in the treatment of polluted water.


San Francisco_California_011221A
[San Francisco, California - Civil Engineering Discoveries]

- Advantages of Nanomaterials

The properties of nanomaterials, particularly their size, offer various different advantages compared to the bulk-form of the materials, and their versatility in terms of the ability to tailor them for specific requirements accentuates their usefulness. An additional advantage is their high porosity, which again increases demand for their use in a multitude of industries. 

In the energy sector, the use of nanomaterials is advantageous in that they can make the existing methods of generating energy - such as solar panels - more efficient and cost-effective, as well as opening up new ways in which to both harness and store energy. 

Nanomaterials are also set to introduce a number of advantages in the electronics and computing industry. Their use will permit an increase in the accuracy of the construction of electronic circuits on an atomic level, assisting in the development of numerous electronic products. 

The very large surface-to-volume ratio of nanomaterials is especially useful in their use in the medical field, which permits the bonding of cells and active ingredients. This results in the obvious advantage of an increase in the likelihood of successfully combatting various diseases.


- Disadvantages of Nanomaterials

Alongside their benefits, there are also a number of disadvantages associated with nanomaterial use. Due to the relative novelty of the widespread use of nanomaterials, there is not a large amount of information on the health and safety aspects of exposure to the materials.

Currently, one of the main disadvantages associated with nanomaterials is considered to be inhalation exposure. This concern arises from animal studies, the results of which suggested that nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and nanofibers may cause detrimental pulmonary effects, such as pulmonary fibrosis. Further possible health risks are ingestion exposure and dust explosion hazards.

Additionally, there are still knowledge gaps regarding nanomaterials, meaning the manufacturing process can often be complex and difficult. The overall process is also expensive, requiring optimum results - especially regarding their use in consumer goods - in order to avoid financial losses.

Risk-assessments concerning any potential environmental effects indicate that nanomaterials used in cosmetic items such as sunscreen, which are applied to the skin, run the risk of ending up in aquatic ecosystems after they are washed off. Nanomaterials that have been engineered may also end up in water bodies such as lakes and rivers, before accumulating to create particles of a larger size. This may put freshwater species - such as snails- at risk by possibly inducing a decline in life processes such as growth and reproduction. The same issues caused by the materials in such freshwater ecosystems are likely to pertain to marine ecosystems as well. Accumulation of nanomaterials in other aspects of the environment, such as soils - through sewage sludge - is an additional concern. Although the concentrations of these engineered nanomaterials is expected to be quite small, repeated release may cause the concentrations to increase over time, exacerbating the related negative effects.


- The Challenges in The Manufacturing Industry

The past 80 years have seen the way we live and work transformed by two tiny inventions. The electronic transistor and the microchip are what make all modern electronics possible, and since their development in the 1940s they've been getting smaller. Today, one chip can contain as many as 60 billion transistors. 

But to keep this progress going we need to be able to create circuits on the extremely small, nanometer scale. A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter and so this kind of engineering involves manipulating individual atoms. We can do this, for example, by firing a beam of electrons at a material, or by vaporising it and depositing the resulting gaseous atoms layer by layer onto a base.  

The real challenge is using such techniques reliably to manufacture working nanoscale devices. The physical properties of matter, such as its melting point, electrical conductivity and chemical reactivity, become very different at the nanoscale, so shrinking a device can affect its performance. If we can master this technology, however, then we have the opportunity to improve not just electronics but all sorts of areas of modern life.


 [More to come ...]



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