Materials of the future – Nanotechnology
Areas of research in the field of nanotechnology are defined as those that deal with particles and structures with sizes ranging from individual atoms up to 100 nanometres. Within that range, it is possible to create a principled distinction between the manipulation of a nanoscale material structure (nanostructures), or whether the research deals with complete objects with overall sizes that remain within nanoscale boundaries (nano-objects).
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Nanotechnology today – what can already be achieved
Many people have high hopes for the potential of nanotechnologies across many fields of economic activity, as the quality of materials can sometimes change substantially at the nanoscale level, with multiple ongoing projects designed to address improvements in materials and surface structures. Once again, nature serves as a role model for contemporary technology. In the field of bionics, for instance, people talk about the lotus effect, which is a shining example of natural surface coatings in many animal and plants, with the finest nanostructures creating a surface that naturally repels both dirt and water. Years of research have made it possible to use nanocoatings of titanium dioxide molecules to create an equally effective method to protect materials against impurities. When light is shone upon the layer, it generates active oxygen, which dissolves organic bonds between dirt particles. This makes it possible to create special nano-glass, which has self-cleaning properties.
Cohesion and adhesion are also widespread in nature
The lotus effect in its most natural form
The results of nanotechnology research are already in use in the manufacturing, processing and sealing of plastics. Microscopic fillers and additives have been used in a targeted fashion to adjust the properties of plastics for a long time, but nanoparticles make it possible to target progress toward a faster, better and more cost-effective approach to processing, as well as improvements such as increased hardness or greater tensile strength. The first nanotechnology products have already made their way into many automotive assemblies, in the form of lighter yet harder bodywork, harder wearing paint and non-reflective glass components.
One particular characteristic of nanotechnology is the fact that it is not restricted to individual scientific fields. New discoveries influence traditional engineering, as well as vehicle, aviation and space technologies as well as architecture, materials sciences and many other areas of specialism. Results of research to date have led to predictions that nanotechnology will form the basis of ground-breaking future technologies. The progress that is expected to be achieved will affect all aspects of the product lifecycle: more efficient, targeted resource extraction, faster processing, improved materials quality through nano-sealants, longer service lives, and improved recycling rates are all conceivable. In comparison to standard technologies, nanotechnologies have so far only found niche applications; early, optimistic forecasts for their immediate market adoption have not yet been borne out. Nonetheless, their potential is far from exhausted.
Nanotechnology – breaking down existing borders
Nanotechnology operates at scales where materials properties change fundamentally – and this is what makes it so powerful. These properties help to break down barriers that physically cannot be overcome by today’s technology. Ever since computers were first invented, for instance, integrated transistors have halved in size at a nearly constant rate, which has roughly doubled their potential performance with the same frequency. However, insurmountable barriers have now appeared, as the laws of quantum physics inherently lead to interference once the size of transistors in a processor drops below a certain limit. A completely new technology will be needed in the near future to replace the silicon processors that are currently in use. In this respect, nanotechnology has already found a potential candidate: graphene. In this carbon-based form, individual atoms are ordered in a one-dimensional, web-like structure that conducts heat and electricity exceptionally well, making graphene a promising candidate for the manufacture of futuristic, high-performance computers.
Nanotechnology is turning physics on its head: this is how it works © Risk Bites
Moreover, nanotechnologies give hope that newly developed materials may have qualities that will solve engineering problems that could not previously be overcome. This may apply to the space elevator, a hypothesised lift between the earth and a space station in geostationary orbit. One problem is the cable that would need to be used; any known material would break under its own weight or would be unable to resist the enormous environmental pressures to which it would be exposed. Carbon nanotubes are tubular microstructures with walls made of carbon atoms. They can be up to thirty times stronger than steel and, in theory, are sufficiently strong to be used for a cable of this kind. Nevertheless, while potential loss of tensile strength in proportion to length, and manufacturing and technical limitations may prevent a practical application for now, they do demonstrate how nanotechnologies can expand the boundaries of the world of materials. Carbon nano tubes are also a good example of the versatility of nanomaterials: they can function as ordinary conductors, semiconductors or even as superconductors and thus transform other materials into conductors. Moreover, they can be used as a filler in carbon fibre composite materials, providing greater stability at a lower weight. Materials of this kind are suitable for use in components for aviation or rocketry.
Finally, nanotechnologies form part of a selected group of research topics that currently have a very high profile, also including Industry v4.0 and the Internet of Things. Nanotechnologies can also make significant contributions in this respect; for instance, RFID labels made from a label with semiconducting nanoparticles are similar to intelligent barcodes that could advance the technology of product communications.
The future of nanotechnologies: a potential risk?
Over a very short period of time, nanotechnologies have shaped the possibilities for an extremely wide range of scientific fields in unexpected ways and, in some cases, have completely redefined their boundaries; their future development cannot easily be predicted. Accordingly, it is understandable that nanotechnologies are met with uncertainty, scepticism and even outright rejection. Specific disputes have arisen in relation to privacy, surveillance, and data protection. There is no getting around the fact that surveillance technology is both improving and shrinking on a constant basis. If the current pace of development continues, there will be virtually no limits on surveillance that can be undertaken. Nano-sensors are so sensitive that they can record the absence or the effects of individual molecules. When combined with suitable analytical software, a large amount of data could be collected, almost without a second thought.
As with many instances of progress in human history – with atomic power being a classic example – responsibility for the kind of applications for which the technology is used lies with users themselves. Nano-sensors that can capture and read chemical sensors may be seen as a privacy threat. At the same time, these kinds of sensor could make it possible to identify explosives or illegal chemicals and enable a more accurate diagnostic process in the medical field, thereby offering the potential to save countless human lives. This ambivalence can be expected with many other nanotechnology products. As such, balancing the pros and cons that nanotechnologies indisputably have, so that they can be used in the best possible way, will become a fundamental duty.
The personal impact of nanotechnologies – what job opportunities will there be?
The cross-sectorial nature of nanotechnologies means that their effect will play out on a multitude of different career paths. Accordingly, cross-sectorial knowledge and projects could be particularly important. Nanotechnology switches, at an atomic scale, have developed an extraordinary similarity to synapses in the human brain and thus represent an entirely new focus of research for artificial intelligence, neural networks and machine learning. The development is also having an impact on a field in which the distinction between living and non-living bodies is becoming blurred, so that expertise in both fields will be necessary.
The future begins today with the innovation of nanotechnology © iStock.com/nadla
The exact, sector-specific career opportunities are very difficult to predict; however, the current state of technology suggests that we should expect that there will be opportunities in virtually every scientific field, from quantum physics through to engineering disciplines via biology and chemistry. Materials research is one area in which many products have already been developed, it is expected that there will soon be revolutions in the fields of medicine and chemistry, with the associated career opportunities that they will bring. Alongside research, process technologies to industrialise production and increase usability will be needed: another large area with extensive, cross-sector opportunities. In general, therefore, there are plenty of career prospects and many businesses are already experiencing difficulties in filling vacancies, while the market is expected to grow still further over the coming years. In any event, the ability to make the leap from theoretical research and niche markets into large-scale consumer products will be important.
Making the leap into the future with ARTS
Nanotechnologies have the potential to lead to innovations that will set the tone for the future. At ARTS, we see making a contribution to a possible revolution as one of our most important tasks, supporting our clients in realising the greatest possible benefits. That is why we are constantly seeking experts in the nanotechnology field who are interested in the future of the science. If you would like to work to shape this future, you’ll be in the right place with ARTS.