The nanotechnology age: A new era for manufacturers
Nanotechnology emerged in 1959 following a presentation from Richard P. Feynman at the California Institute of Technology entitled "There’s plenty of room at the bottom: An invitation to enter a new field of physics." The Nobel laureate pointed to the immense space in the atomic world and the opportunities for engineering applications.
The idea of making things small was not taking big things and shrinking them. It was the concept of starting with the molecular, atomic and quantum world and making it "large."
I suppose I should define some terms:
• Micro = a millionth of a metre
• Nano = a billionth of a metre
• Pico = a trillionth of a metre
Nanotech space evolves from the pico world to meet the needs of the micro world. Smaller components and interactions are built from pico stuff. Nanotech allows us to take advantage of the quantum world in solving the problems of our Newtonian environment.
I’ll use carbon nanotubes as an example. They are stronger than steel, harder than diamond, lighter than aluminum and more conductive than copper. The difficulty is in scaling up these advantages, because as we scale up the awesome physical properties of carbon nanotubes, much of the strength is lost. Not all is lost, however. Some companies have found success.
>I am a judge for the New Hampshire High Tech Council, which hands out an award for Product of the Year. For 2007, we chose Nanocomp Technologies Inc. for its physically strong, lightweight, thermally conductive yarns and felts. The weaving process is invisible, since we are looking at nanoscale processes. The final felt is used in body armour and other high strength critical applications. It comes out stronger than existing armour and it is lighter and cooler.
The basic physics needs some explanation. As the volume of an object increases, it does so in three dimensions (a cubic function), while the surface area increases by only two (a squared relation). If the interaction is at the surface, we can get better volumetric efficiency by building with the smallest possible objects–molecules. This principle is used in weaving rope, making inks and cooking chocolate. Modern storage batteries are smaller by a factor of four for a given power storage using nanotech principles. This is because the interaction happens on the surface of the battery material. Why carry around the innards that are not generating electricity? The lesson is to fresh grind your coffee into the smallest particle for good taste response. No one makes coffee with a whole bean.
Programmable matter, and nanotech, is a bigger playground than all of the industrial revolution. Much like the Internet changed communications, nanotechnology changes materials. Semiconductors use topdown techniques to get to nanoscale, and programmable matter is bottom up.
To some extent, when we fly the Boeing Dreamliner, we are flying in a nano-enabled machine. The skin is carbon-reinforced "plastic" and could come from Toys R Us. Built-in sensors are able to detect cracks, and in the not-so-distant future, smart materials will be used to fix the cracks automatically.
What does this mean for manufacturing? Factories began as a town, migrated to a building and are now in a box (semiconductors) and microbreweries. Soon, we will have factories on a chip.
At the nanoscale, opaque materials become transparent, inert materials become catalysts, solids turn to liquids, insulators become conductors, and we are not yet into quantum physics.
There are risks and opportunities associated with nanotechnology. After all, risks are just unidentified opportunities. A lot of venture capital will be put to risk with grand paybacks. The patents are already jamming lawyers’ offices, and the balloon is just starting to explode.
Nanotechnology is already being used in the following applications: fabric for body armour; cancer research; synthetic stem cell research; computing devices, and; brewing plastics with fermentation. The fundamental carbon nanotube has 100 times the strength of steel, 30 per cent the weight of aluminum and excellent electric and thermal conductivity.
A major controls manufacturer commented, "There seems to be a huge arena for the use of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may be the next great industry to come out of the U.S., our next great export market."
I believe nanotechnology will dominate all tech industries within the coming 10 years, and we must understand the implications. We will have to rethink all aspects of manufacturing, including measurement, costs, quality and technology. Today’s industrial engineer using yesterday’s skills is in trouble. As always, change is hard, but necessary.
Thanks to Neil Gordon of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance for his help in preparing this paper.
Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek.