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Inside CI: Sometimes Good Things Start Small

December 1, 2001
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Twenty years ago, if you had brought up the word “nanotechnology” in casual conversation, you probably would have gotten a blank stare. Today, while much of the developments in nanoscale science and engineering are still taking place in research labs, an increasing number of people in the manufacturing arena are starting to sit up and take notice.

The federal government’s National Nanotechnology Intitiative, formed under President Bill Clinton in early 2000 to help fund research efforts in this field, has termed nanotechnology “The Next Industrial Revolution” because of its potential impact on the “health, wealth and lives of people.” Based on the topics presented at the recent Fine, Ultrafine and Nanoparticles 2001 conference hosted by Business Communications Co. in Chicago, Ill. (see the review on p. 26), the question is no longer if this revolution will take place, but when, and what effect it will have on the world as we know it.

According to M.C. Roco, chair of the National Science and Technology Council’s subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET), “The ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new properties and functions is leading to unprecedented understanding and control over the basic building blocks and properties of all natural and man-made things.”

Imagine, for instance, having the ability to cover an aircraft with a coating that could instantly reconfigure itself to mimic the aircraft’s surroundings, rendering it virtually invisible in the sky. Or being able to make bricks and other building materials that can sense weather conditions and alter their inner structures to be more or less permeable to air and humidity, thereby improving the comfort and energy efficiency of buildings. Or being able to manufacture ceramics to exact shapes without machining. Through nanotechnology, these and a host of other advances—many of which have yet to be dreamed of—are possible. But even better yet, nanotechnology has the potential to improve our products and operations today, especially where nanopowders are concerned.

Commercial applications for nanoparticulate materials reached $492.5 million in 2000 and are expected to reach $900 million in 2005. As electronic and other devices become increasingly smaller, so, too, must the materials that make up these devices. In 1985, for instance, the computer and memory devices that were sold had sizes for the structures being made that were about one micron across. Now the current state-of-the-art is less than one-third that size and shrinking rapidly. Some researchers predict that “quantum computers” based on nanoscale technology will someday exist, with the capability to calculate millions, even billions, of times faster than today’s super-computers.

Researchers have long known that by creating nanometer-scale structures, it is possible to control fundamental properties such as color, electrical conductivity, melting temperature, hardness, crack-resistance and strength without changing the materials’ chemical compositions. But creating these materials at an affordable price on a commercial scale has proved daunting. Now, however, the increasing demand for these materials is pushing companies to overcome these challenges, and it may not be long before nanoscale materials become mainstream.

Still think it’s all too futuristic? Maybe, when it comes to invisible airplanes.

But then again, so were computers and cell phones in the 18th century.

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