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Technology - Nanotechnology: 21st Century Approach to Make Things

Dileep Singh

(This article is sponsored by The Boston Group)

Nanotechnology has come to be recognized as a revolutionary approach to design, create and utilize materials, devices, and systems at a nanometer scale. The term nanometer corresponds to dimensions in the order of a billionth of a meter. To put it in perspective, these dimensions are of the scale of individual atoms and molecules of materials. It is generally accepted that by assembling materials/systems atom-by-atom or using a bottom-up approach can lead to creation of materials and functional systems that will exhibit unique properties and functionalities, that otherwise cannot be obtained by conventional macro-scale technological approaches.

Concepts of nanotechnology have been practiced from time immemorial. It is now that with availability of advanced tools (for example, atomic force microscope), in conjunction with advanced scientific base, scientists and engineers are venturing the un-chartered territories of exploring nanotechnology and its uses for mankind.

Nanotechnology has broad areas of applications including materials, medical, electronic/photonic devices, sensors, pharmaceuticals, energy, etc. One such example is the fabrication technology of nanowires of various electronic materials. Advances in this area will lead to generation of field-effect transistors as well as their use as sensors for chemical and biological species detection. Nanotechnology can lead to a confluence of microelectronics and biology that can open doors for detection and elimination of cancerous cells from human body.

There are several businesses sprouting up to support the nanotechnology revolution. These businesses range from those that provide materials to those that provide tools to build and characterize nanostructure assemblies. Nanophase Technologies (Romeoville, IL) is one such entity that manufactures nanoscale partilcles of zinc oxide that is used in sun block lotions. Nanoparticles of zinc oxide blocks ultraviolet rays from sun. Another company, NanoInk (Chicago, IL), has developed tools and technology to build nanostructures of materials including DNA.

Unlike dotcom hype, there are tremendous real business opportunities waiting to be capitalized in the area of nanotechnology. National Science Foundation predicts that in next 10-15 years, nanotechnology will be a $1 trillion industry and will employ about two million workers. Some of the real-life applications of nanotechnology are already being seen. For instance, Wilson Double Core tennis ball uses InMat nanoparticle coating that leads to about 35 percent increase in the life of the ball compared to its traditional ball.

To forge ahead in the world of nanotechnology, it will require extensive collaborations of engineers and scientists from diverse fields such as physics, materials science, chemistry, biology, microelectronics, applied mathematics to name a few. It is expected that next several years will see rapid advances and exciting technological breakthroughs based on nanotechnology.

(Dr. Dileep Singh is a Materials Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory's Energy Technology division. His current interests are in development of nanomaterials for structural, photonics, and environmental applications. He can be reached at dsingh@anl.gov. )

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