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Nanotechnology: A Catalyst for the 21st Century
By John F. Elter, Ph.D., Sustainable Systems, LLC & Bin Du, Ph.D., Plug Power Inc.
Since about one generation ago, there has been recognition of the convergence of technologies in four core fields: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and new technologies in cognitive science. The rate of convergence of "nano-bio-info-cogno" (NBIC) is tremendous, and the implications for society and culture are profound. Of these, nanotechnology may be regarded as the catalyst underlying this convergence and the transformations it is fostering. Indeed, the unifying aspect of understanding and manipulating matter at the nanoscale is perhaps the driving force for progress in the four core fields. There is underway a major technical-business co-evolution enabled by the convergence of these four core fields across industry segments.
The nanoscale, defined as the size range from 1 to 100 nanometers (10-9 m), is the scale at which the smallest components of computer memories and processors are engineered, where the building blocks of living cells are structured, and where complex molecules are formed. At the nanoscale special effects come into play that are completely absent or, at best, of minor consequence at the macro scale. These are the appearance of various "quantum" effects in which material properties are a function of the material particle size. In addition, nanosized particles also have much greater surface area than larger particles of similar mass. For example, when a single cubic centimeter of volume is filled with 1 nanometer sized cubes, each with an area of 6 square nanometers (there are 1021 of them), their total surface area equals 6,000 square meters!
Nanoscale catalyst particles, for example, provide a very high surface area and capture quantum effects.
Nanoscale catalyst particles, for example, provide a very high surface area and capture quantum effects
Nanotechnology is not simply working at smaller dimensions. Working at the nanoscale enables scientists and engineers to utilize the unique chemical, physical, mechanical, electrical and optical properties that naturally emerge at that scale. By engineering the surface structure of nanoscale materials, it is possible to achieve specific properties, greatly extending the material scientist's toolkit beyond that achievable at macroscopic length scales. This can yield materials that are stronger, lighter, more durable, more conductive, more sieve-like, and more reactive. For example, by having a monolayer of nanoparticles on the surface of a nanoparticle of another material, electronic properties can be altered via this “skin effect” to increase surface reactivity. As an example, researchers have even shown that sub-nano sized single atom platinum catalysts anchored on iron metal oxide nanoparticles have excellent stability and extremely high activity through the creation of high-valent atom sites which reduce adsorption energy and lower the activation energy barrier for the oxidation of carbon monoxide.
Nanoscale materials are also useful in environmental sustainability applications such soil remediation and water purification. Here nanocatalysts, nanosorbents, nanostructured membranes, and functionalized nanoparticles are finding wide application. Engineered nanomaterials have demonstrated strong antimicrobial properties through the photocatalytic production of reactive oxygen species that damage cell components and viruses.
An example of the convergence between the various core fields is the convergence of nanotechnology with biology and medicine. This new field of nanobiotechnology involves the symbiotic relation of applying nanoscale principles and techniques to understand and transform biosystems, and conversely to use biological principles and materials to inspire and create new materials, devices and systems at the nanoscale. Applications involve the use of functional nanoparticles in drug delivery, medical diagnosis, antibacterial treatments, wound healing and even cell and organ repair. Most recently, engineers at Tel Aviv University have developed the first patient-specific 3D printed vascularized heart. 3D printers, incidentally, routinely deliver nano-drops of functionalized liquid that are used to bind micron sized particles of plastics, metals, and ceramics together for use not only in medical and dental applications, but across the industrial landscape. Printed electronics involving nanomaterials is similarly transformative.
For the past 50 years, nanotechnology has enabled companies like Intel to pack more and more transistors onto a chip, doubling the number of transistors per chip every two years. The process capability currently has achieved a transistor size of 14 nm (some have recently announced 7 nm!). The rate of improvement in semiconductor process capability is no longer predictable (a phenomenon known in the past as Moore's Law), but the convergence of nano-bio-info-cogno continues to seek new ways of continuing the march. Autonomous mobility, robotics, big-data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, 5G and the mobile internet, all enabled by nanotechnology, are reducing barriers of entry to new businesses. Quantum computing is on the horizon. We are indeed living in interesting times.
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