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Nanotechnology and Manufacturing: The Future Is Bright

The nanoworld is a mysterious place because materials behave differently at the atomic level. They take on enhanced physical properties that can be used in manufacturing to create innovative, high-performance products. Nanotechnology involves operating at remarkably small scales, in other words, 100 nanometers or less. In comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.


Nanotechnology and Manufacturing

Nanomaterials can be designed to improve strength, flexibility, durability, lubricity and electrical conductivity compared to standard materials, as well as being resistant to numerous environmental conditions, such as glare, moisture, temperature, corrosion and even microbes.


“Taking advantage of these properties, today’s nanotechnology-enabled products range from baseball bats and tennis rackets to catalysts for refining crude oil and ultrasensitive detection and identification of biological and chemical toxins,” states the website for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a U.S. government nanotechnology R&D initiative established in 2000.


Nanomanufacturing is the scaled-up, repeatable and cost-effective manufacturing of nanoscale materials, structures, devices and systems. These materials and devices are then used to produce innovative, next-generation products that provide higher performance at a lower cost and improved sustainability.


Top Down or Bottom Up


There are two basic approaches to nanomanufacturing: top-down or bottom-up. Top-down fabrication starts with a block of original material and systematically carves it away, down to the final nanoscale product. With the bottom-up approach, products are created by building them up from atomic- and molecular-scale components, which provides engineers with more building options. According to NNI, advanced processes that enable bottom-up nanomanufacturing include:


  • Chemical vapor deposition – chemicals are combined to react and produce very pure, high-performance films
  • Molecular beam epitaxy – a method of depositing single crystals, especially useful in semiconductor manufacturing
  • Atomic layer epitaxy – a process for depositing one-atom-thick layers on a surface
  • “Dip pen” lithography – dips the tip of an atomic force microscope into a chemical fluid, which then “writes” on a substrate surface
  • Nanoimprint lithography – creates nanoscale features by stamping or printing them onto a surface
  • Roll-to-roll processing – produces nanoscale devices on a roll of ultrathin plastic or metal in high volumes
  • Self-assembly – a process by which individual chemical or biological molecular structures group themselves together naturally to form an ordered structure, without outside direction


Nanomaterials in Manufacturing


Breakthroughs in nanotechnology provide new, ever-expanding opportunities to synthesize and commercialize novel materials at the nanoscale. These materials are critical for propelling advanced manufacturing forward, improving product performance and creating new, innovative products that enhance manufacturing. For example:


  • Coatings. Nanoparticle deposition systems create highly uniform, conformal coatings of nanoscale particles. For example, in 2015, Modumetal invented a nanocoating process that increases the strength of steel by as much as 10 times, making it more resistant to corrosion.
  • Nanoengineered polymers. Thousands of nanoengineered polymers and hybrid polymer blends are available to manufacturers. Nanoparticles are embedded in the polymers at very specific concentrations and orientations, typically to increase strength, temperature and corrosion resistance.
  • Lubricant coatings. Nanoparticles can also be engineered to provide lubricity and wear resistance. These are typically applied as a coating on solid surfaces or disseminated in lubricating fluids, such as oil.
  • DNA-based structures. Human DNA can be used to form frameworks upon which mechanical structures and devices can be built. For example, “DNA molecules can serve as precisely controllable and programmable scaffolds for organizing functional nanomaterials in the design, fabrication and characterization of nanometer scale electronic devices and sensors,” writes Nanowork, a leading nanotechnology portal.
  • Nanomachines. Researchers have successfully developed working nanomotors, nanorobots and nanomachines from chemical and biological molecules. These molecules self-assemble into functional, programmable nanoscale functional machines. Because they are small enough to travel through the vascular system, they have great potential in the field of medicine—for example, they can be microscopic robots to seek out and destroy cancer tumors by entering the tumor and emptying tiny payloads of drugs.


Future Potential


Nanotechnology and nanomanufacturing are revolutionizing many manufacturing sectors, including information technology, defense, medicine, transportation, energy, environmental science, telecommunications and electronics.


“Flexible electronics have been developed using semiconductor nanomembranes for applications in smartphone and e-reader displays,” says NNI. “Making flat, flexible, lightweight, non-brittle, and highly efficient electronics opens the door to countless smart products.”


Smartness, however, depends on data—a device can only be as smart as the input it receives from sensors. Nanoscale sensors and devices will continue to improve the monitoring of equipment and machines to maximize efficiency and productivity—the essence of the Internet of Things (IoT).


To further drive R&D in nanomanufacturing, NNI partners with nearly 100 research centers and user facilities across the country to provide researchers with the facilities, specialized equipment and trained staff they need to develop nanotechnology applications and associated manufacturing processes. For 2017, the U.S. government is providing NNI with $1.4 billion, which includes $37 million for nanomanufacturing.

"Taking advantage of these properties, today’s nanotechnology-enabled products range from baseball bats and tennis rackets to catalysts for refining crude oil and ultrasensitive detection and identification of biological and chemical toxins."

National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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