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Nano Looms as the Next Pervasive Technology

December 1, 2013
By Rita Boland
E-mail About the Author

Tiny is the titan moving forward in almost every field and product.

  • This Nanosensor Device for Cellphone Intergration and Chemical Sensing Network demonstrates why experts believe nano may be the next information technology, applying to almost all facets of future development.
     This Nanosensor Device for Cellphone Intergration and Chemical Sensing Network demonstrates why experts believe nano may be the next information technology, applying to almost all facets of future development.

Nanotechnology is the new cyber, according to several major leaders in the field. Just as cyber is entrenched across global society now, nano is poised to be the major capabilities enabler of the next decades. Expert members from the National Nanotechnology Initiative representing government and science disciplines say nano has great significance for the military and the general public.

According to the initiative, its aim is to move discoveries from the laboratory into products for commercial and public benefit; encourage students and teachers to become involved in nanotechnology education; create a skilled work force and the supporting infrastructure and tools to advance nanotechnology; and support responsible development. The initiative involves more than two dozen government agencies, industry, academic partners and international participants.

Dr. Mihail Roco is the main architect and founding chair of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). In addition to that work, he sits on various committees and serves as the senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Having helped advance the field to its current point, he predicts that in the next five to 10 years the focus will shift to application. Because of improved tools for more accurate measurement and control at the nanoscale level, he foresees more economical development of nanotechnology. “We’ll be able to understand and build robust solutions,” he states. Most solutions now are based on assumptions and trial and error. For these reasons, they are still expensive, he adds.

Another change involves creating science-based nanosystems, which will lead to approaches that create fundamentally new services and devices that mark a vast departure from today’s resources. “Nanotechnology is the most exploratory general platform in technology,” Roco says. He continues that he and others in the field see nanotechnology immersed in other future technologies across disciplines such as electronics, magnetics and photonics. New paradigms should be achieved for memory and logic devices. Nanotechnology will enable slower energy consumption and construction of economical distributed sensor systems. Roco predicts solar energy and electric cars will become viable cost-wise within 10 years due in part to materials improved by nanotechnology.

Looking ahead 15 years or more, Roco sees similar trends as nanotechnology continues to converge with emerging technologies, creating new platforms. It also could be immersed in socioeconomic projects, which usually include information technology now. “[Soon], the question will be ‘How do you use nanotechnology?’” Roco says. As the field provides a base for all material work, methods and development will be chosen as necessary to apply for different projects. “In my opinion, after 15 years, nanotechnology will replace information technology as the most economic technology platform,” Roco states. Nanotechnology has even wider applications than information technology.

Nanomedicine in the next 15 years may realize predictive individualized health care. Researchers could create artificial organs and treatments for many cancers that will expand life expectancy. “Another important impact will be, in my opinion, sustainable development because the solution will become economic,” Roco offers.

In science and technology (S&T), Roco believes nanotechnology will diverge into different platforms in the economy. He also believes scientists will begin to understand more about nature by better measuring and understanding how a variety of materials, properties and functions exist there. Improved comprehension of the natural world will lead to different decisions in the medical field and space exploration.

“Development of nanotechnology is important as a well-defined concept and vision in science and technology,” Roco says. Within five to 10 years he expects scientists to have control of the nanoscale, saying he believes nano has been underestimated in its long-term impact.

However, to continue the trend of exponential growth in the field, Roco emphasizes a need to institutionalize processes to create continuum programs that stretch from universities into research and manufacturing. Over the last 12 years, nanotechnology has grown at 25 percent a year, as Roco estimated back in 2000. It already is penetrating many fields in significant ways. Products such as semiconductors, for example, are dominated by it.

Industry and academia are key to the continuum, building on government programs. Because of nanotechnology’s interdisciplinary nature, different fields can work together for activities such as exploiting search results. Cooperation can begin with basic research and then extend to applied research and beyond. “Part of the NNI role is to create partnerships and ensure the continuity,” Roco explains.

Dr. Altaf Carim, assistant director for nanotechnology, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says nano is an enabling technology, not an industry itself. Whether looking five or 15 or more years into the future, Carim foresees the same trend—pervasive nanotechnology. “We’re going to see nanotechnology at the core of many more products and processes,” he explains. As processes and products become more reliable, scalable and inexpensive, nano will branch into more applications. Fundamental research also is likely to continue, though the term nanotechnology may fall out of favor.

Carim believes the NNI will be important in the future of nano S&T. The coordination of activities among stakeholders helps streamline efforts, while the players represent more than a billion dollars of investment. The initiative’s strategic plan comes out every four years, with the next release scheduled for early next year. To prepare for it, contributors held a stakeholder meeting in June with almost 200 in-person and online participants.

Industry and academia are major recipients of federal spending in the discipline, coming in the form of grants and contracts. The NSF, for example, is helping a consortium from the semiconductor industry. The Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) has the mission to demonstrate nonconventional, low-energy technologies to outperform complementary metal-oxide semiconductors on critical applications during the next decade and beyond. The NSF funds several dozen nanoscience centers and networks at U.S. universities. The NRI supports joint grant awards with the NSF under the NNI’s “Nanoelectronics for Beyond 2020” effort.

Carim says nanotechnology represents a frontier area of S&T that impacts the nation’s innovation, manufacturing and competitiveness. Since the NNI launched, various private- and public-sector organizations and international partners have started nanotechnology initiatives. The moves make sense, since the studies can apply to many fields including health, energy, defense and transportation.

Dr. Lew Sloter, associate director, Materials and Structures in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, foresees two complementary trends in the next decade. The first is maturation, which involves more opportunities to incorporate engineered nanomaterials into defense and other products. The second is the blending of nanotechnology knowledge with traditional science fields. Like Roco, he believes nanotechnology is moving into a phase of application.

Just as Sloter’s short-term predictions are close to Roco’s, so are his long-term ones, such as nanotechnology integrating with other disciplines. He thinks nanotechnology may stop becoming its own field as much as it will become part of various fields. Sloter says he sees this as the most likely path, though other leaders he respects believe the opposite. Either way, the groundwork already in place makes new and enhanced capabilities possible. Approaches and theories that come from nanotechnology research will be important parts of research and engineering practitioners’ toolkits.

Sloter predicts nanoscience and similar projects will continue to receive funding in the future, but with the nanowork becoming more of an enabler or contributor. Fewer projects will be identifiable solely as advancing understanding of the nanoscale or processing of generic engineered nanomaterials.

He does say he could see a period in which the military will exploit intensively the understanding of nanoscale phenomena, nanoprocesses and nanomaterials for more specific defense applications. He expects more emphasis on the controlled manufacture of engineered nanomaterials and processing to reproduce nanoenabled items such as flexible display devices in which the department has made large investments. Nano also could serve as a catalyst in energetic materials. The military has, if not unique, at least highly unusual needs in this area. Safer explosives are a potential application; these releases of energy could be better controlled using such items as nanoparticulate powders. Polymer reinforcements also could apply to defense as could nanoclays.

The military is doing research incorporating nanofibers or carbon nanotubes in polymer resins in advanced fiber-reinforced polymer composites. Sloter likes that example because it demonstrates the parallelism between commodity development and relatively low-performance requirements being transferred into higher requirements.

As the department advances nanotechnology, it looks to continue work with academia and industry. Sloter predicts a partnership associated with environmental and occupational health and safety becoming more important. Officials have set up forums for an exchange of best practices in all aspects of engineered nanomaterials and nanoenabled products. “I encourage industry in particular to help us understand their issues in areas of research, manufacturing and prudent development of products,” Sloter says. He continues that the military is working hard to ensure everyone fully understands the content of products for environmental safety and also to understand better the equivalence of the associated chemistry. Sloter wants universities to consider intellectual opportunities in the nanoscale and bring them to the attention of defense officials.

“Nanotechnology is important for the capabilities it brings to potentially every facet of our national scene,” Sloter continues. Beyond strict development of nanomaterials, control of the structure at the nanolevel has implications. The idea is that by controlling properties, developers can control ultimate utility. Rather than relying on what nature produces in an element, scientists can create artificially the necessary structures for tasks such as detecting harmful substances such as those studied in chemical, biological, nuclear or radiation programs.

Dr. Robert Pohanka, director, National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), has a background in the military realm and with S&T, although he works now outside the military. He predicts that a key area nanotechnology will enable for defense and beyond is long-life, maintenance-free components that will save significant funding spent on repair and replacement. Another involves major advancements of electronics to facilitate advanced computing. The results will allow users to tailor properties in computers. Advanced medical capabilities through better nanotechnology will help not only stateside, but also on the battlefield. Pohanka agrees with his fellow experts that nanotechnology will become like information technology, contributing to almost all facets of life and creating unprecedented functionality.

Dr. Lisa Friedersdorf, senior scientist at the NNCO, says she takes a broad view of the future of the field. “It’s hard for me to imagine an area that won’t be impacted by nanotechnology,” she says. “If we manipulate matter at these size scales, it’s going to be part of everything we do.” She adds that partnerships will be important to ensure fundamental research informs key needs. Having a well-trained work force in the next generation will result in commercialization of what nanotechnology enables, helping overall economic health. “It will be part of everything,” Friedersdorf states.

Pohanka agrees with the other assessments regarding the almost ubiquitous applicability of the NNI’s focus area. “There is not one single nanotechnology,” he explains. “There’s a very wide, complex spectrum of work going on.” He expects nanoelectronics to advance over the next decade, helping with smartphones, tablets, computers and even batteries. Electric vehicles also should progress. Nanotechnology can improve products indirectly as well, such as by offering better coatings for maintenance components or creating hydrophobic substances to preserve electronics or make clothes stain-resistant.

Past the next decade, Pohanka predicts medical sensors will be one of the major beneficiaries of nanotechnology advancements, echoing his colleague’s ideas about targeted therapies for individuals. He also foresees nanoelectronics evolving at a rapid rate. The field eventually should realize extremely lightweight, high-strength, fracture-resistant materials. One challenge is to move the discoveries up to the large scale and maintain the strength properties.

Friedersdorf adds, “Looking 15-plus years out is where we really start to exploit the novel properties of nanotechnology and enable really new things that were not possible before.” For example, she foresees novel ways to store information, not only by employing smaller devices, but also through means not existing today. In terms of energy changes, she believes developers will create capabilities to harvest energy from movement and temperatures to perform functions such as charging phones in people’s pockets.

 

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