The Fourth Industrial Revolution has made for big strides in manufacturing, especially with the additions of robotics and 3D printing. But one field has been advancing the notion of thinking small. Nanotechnology, or the study and application of manipulating matter at the nanoscale, has uncovered the existence of a world that’s a thousand times smaller than a fly’s eye. It has also led to the development of materials and techniques that have enhanced production capabilities. Nanotechnology continues to have a broad impact on different sectors. In fact, the worldwide market will likely exceed $125 billion by 2024. Ranging from stain-resistant fabric to more affordable solar cells, nanotechnology applications have been improving our daily lives. As research continues, advances in this space are opening up possibilities for more promising innovations.
A Closer Look at the Nanoscale
In the metric system, “nano” means a factor of one billionth—which means that a nanometer (nm) is at one-billionth of a meter. Forms of matter at the nanoscale usually have lengths from the atomic level of around 0.1 nm up to 100 nm.
What makes the nanoscale extraordinary is that the properties and characteristics of matter are different on this level. Some materials can become more efficient at conducting electricity or heat. Others reflect light better. There are also materials that become stronger. The list goes on. For instance, the metal copper on the nanoscale is transparent. Gold, which is normally unreactive, becomes chemically active. Carbon, which is soft in its usual form, becomes incredibly hard when packed into a nanoscopic arrangement called a “nanotube”. These characteristics are crucial for numerous nanotechnology applications.
The reason why chemical properties alter in the nanoscale is that it’s easier for particles to move around and between one another. Additionally, gravity becomes much less important than the electromagnetic forces between atoms and molecules. Thermal vibrations also become extremely significant. In short, the rules of science are very different at the nanoscale. It’s one of the factors that make nanotechnology research and nanotechnology applications so fascinating.
Creating lighter, sturdier and safer materials are possible with nanotechnology. Many of those materials can also withstand great pressures and weights. Nanomaterials, or structures in the nanoscale, enable the advanced manufacturing of innovative, next-generation products that provide higher performance at a lower cost and improved sustainability.
Exploring the Nanotech Space, One Atom at a Time
A few well-known companies have been exploring the substantial profit potential of nanotechnology applications.
IBM has invested more than $3 billion for the development of semiconductors that will be seven nanometers or less. The company has also been exploring new nanomanufacturing techniques. Additionally, IBM holds the distinction of producing the world’s smallest and fastest graphene chip.
Samsung has also been active in nanotechnology research. The electronics giant has filed more than 400 patents related to graphene. Such patents involve manufacturing processes and touch screens, among other nanotechnology applications. Moreover, Samsung has funded an effort to develop its first generation graphene batteries.
One of the notable startups that has been gaining traction in this space is NuMat Technologies. The company creates intelligently engineered systems through the integration of programmable nanomaterials. NuMat is also the first company in the world to commercialize products enabled by metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). These are nanomaterials with vast surface areas, highly tunable porosities, and near-infinite combinatorial possibilities. Nanotechnology applications of MOFs involve products with improved performance and otherwise-unachievable flexibility in form factors. Additionally, they have cost-advantage production economics.
Founder Benjamin Hernandez believes that one of the most important uses of nanotechnology is solving challenges related to sustainability.
“I think conceptually that’s kind of the wave of the future, using atomic-scale machines or engineering to solve complex macro problems,” Hernandez said.
Moreover, NuMat uses artificial intelligence to design MOFs. The company has total funding of $22.3 million so far. NuMat continues extensive research to develop more nanotechnology applications for the future.
Making a Difference with Nanotechnology Research
The ones mentioned above are just a few of the thousand uses of nanotechnology. Achievements in the field seem to be announced almost daily. However, businesses must also place greater importance on using nanotechnology for more sustainable manufacturing. After all, advantages include reduced consumption of raw materials. Another benefit is the substitution of more abundant or less toxic materials than the ones presently used. Moreover, nanotechnology applications can lead to the development of cleaner and less wasteful manufacturing processes.
Professor Sijie Lin at Tongji University is optimistic about the prevalence of sustainability in nanotechnology applications.
“Designing safer nanomaterials and nanostructures has gained increasing attention in the field of nanoscience and technology in recent years,” Lin said. “Based on the body of experimental evidence contributed by environmental health and safety studies, materials scientists now have a better grasp on the relationships between the nanomaterials’ physicochemical characteristics and their hazard and safety profiles.”
According to Markus Antonietti, director of Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interfaces at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, more work needs to be done in increasing awareness on nanotechnology applications or uses of nanotechnology. “But there also needs to be a focus on education and getting information to the public at large,” he noted. “The best part is that all of this could happen immediately if we simply spread the information in an understandable way. People don’t read science journals, so they don’t even know that all of this is possible.”