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Tiny Particles, Big Ideas in Nanomanufacturing

March 27, 2019
The technology is poised to upend several industries.

Except for flying cars—so far, anyway—scientific progress is letting us knock big-ticket items off our technology bucket list. We’re already looking at driverless cars powered by artificial intelligence and swarms of internet satellites.

So, what’s next? How about manufacturing airplanes and skyscrapers at the molecular level? It’s called nanomanufacturing, and you can expect to hear a lot more about it as it finds its way into a variety of industries and changes how we think about manufacturing in general.

Hair-raising facts

First, a reference point.

A single human hair measures 100,000 nanometers across. It’d be hard to imagine something smaller that’s still useful—especially in manufacturing. But now, researchers in the nanotechnology field typically spend their time working with materials between 10 and 100 nanometers across.

Why so small? At the risk of sounding reductive, it’s because “stuff” doesn’t always operate as we expect at such a tiny scale. For example, as we rearrange and reduce the complexity of chains of molecules, a given material may become:

  • Stronger
  • More flexible
  • More durable
  • Lighter-weight
  • Better able to resist temperature extremes
  • More resistant to environmental and other types of corrosion

Nanotechnology shows so much promise that, in 2000, the United States formed the National Nanotechnology Initiative to cement America’s place as a global leader in this nascent field.

It’s easy to see why, too. Saying nanomanufacturing will become critical for “electronics” manufacturing is wildly reductive. The truth is, this will open up vast new avenues of possibility and even brand-new types of electronic devices.

Photodetectors and solar cells could benefit from greater efficiency and durability. Smartphones and smart watches will become more literally and figuratively flexible while delivering more computing power. Even smart home appliances and LED display technologies can benefit.

It’s popular to malign smartphones as a somewhat more frivolous way to put high technologies to work for us, but given recent warnings from scientists about the health of our planet, advancements in solar panels are anything but trivial.

But for any of this to happen and reach the market, manufacturers must understand and leverage the two main types of nanomanufacturing and the potential they both represent. They’re called top-down and bottom-up fabrication.

In top-down nan-fabrication, an existing build material is reduced in complexity until it yields a “final nanoscale form” with desirable traits, such as the ones we named above. In bottom-up nano-fabrication, the opposite happens—a material is gradually built from scratch, literally at the molecular level.

Cyber concerns

Interestingly, some of the opportunities brought forth by nanomanufacturing and its close cousin, 3D printing, do come with fine print attached, up to and including security concerns. Our manufacturing apparatuses are becoming ever more sophisticated and reliant on software and connected technologies. Since that’s the case, manufacturers must take the risk of breaches and malware seriously.

There is already a special discipline under the already-huge cybersecurity umbrella devoted exclusively to hardening manufacturing equipment against malignant outside actors. Rutgers and Georgia Tech have published research on ways to ensure hackers don’t gain access to sensitive manufacturing infrastructures, such as those we rely on to manufacture critical building materials or medical devices.

Steel coatings and consumer electronics

Despite these caveats, which are standard-issue for every industry these days, nanomanufacturing is poised to upend several entire industries as we know them.

In 2015, a startup in Seattle called Modumetal became a pioneer in nano-scale improvements to structural steel. Modumetal employs electroplating—a very common current-gen manufacturing and finishing process—to apply several extremely thin nanolayers of various types of coatings to steel. Applications for this strength-enhanced steel include major infrastructure such as bridges, oil and gas transportation and storage equipment.

Roll-to-roll processing is a nano-scale manufacturing technique that has already greatly improved manufacturing time and quality for consumer electronic devices—most notably wearable technology. In this type of manufacturing, nano-scale devices are printed or stamped onto a very thin roll of either plastic or metal.

This technique has yielded more flexible electronic components, memory modules (RAM) with higher densities and communication devices, such as cellular radios. Future improvements are expected to bring us even closer to biomedical implants and other medical-related devices.

But the breakthrough application for nanomaterials and the field that is perhaps driving growth more quickly than any other is the transportation industry. Disruptions happen—think of automobiles with autopilot systems, panoplies of sensors, connected dashboards, internet connections and much more. But saving weight is maybe the most urgent need here. Pressures based on environmental concerns and all the politics around the cost of oil means our automobiles need to be more efficient and a lot faster than they have been.

Aerospace is another clear benefactor of nanomanufacturing in the transportation industry. The benefits of saving weight on a finished automobile merely by making its build materials lighter and stronger are multiplied manifold when you apply the same idea to airplanes and fighter jets.

According to the National Nanotechnology Institute, just 20% in weight savings on a commercial aircraft can translate to fuel savings of as much as 15%. This is a space that is expected to benefit directly from carbon nanotube sheets — a far-future idea when the term came to prominence a few years ago, but now a very achievable reality with real-world impacts.

NASA literally has sky-high hopes here, too. One of the greatest challenges of leaving Earth is getting payloads and exceptionally heavy spacecraft and lift vehicles out of orbit. But nano-materials could improve the strength of ordinary build components and shave down weight at the same time. The result? Single-stage vehicles for orbital entries and far greater mission flexibility.

Challenges and obstacles remain

We talked briefly about some of the security concerns in this burgeoning scientific field, but another challenge comes from the science itself. Suffice it to say, this is a new enough realm of material sciences and manipulating the size and arrangement of molecules themselves takes considerable — and fairly specific — skills. Science isn’t always an exact science, but this type of science just might be.

And yet, despite concerning itself with some of the smallest known particles, nanomanufacturing, as we’ve seen, has applications from the smallest transistors and logic boards to the tallest steel-clad skyscrapers. Nano-scale manufacturing is about to rule our world — but first, we have to understand and master it.

Megan Ray Nichols is a technical writer and the editor of Schooled by Science, an easy-to-understand science blog.

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