Nanotechnology is improving manufacturing in ways big and small
When you get down to the nanoscale – we’re talking 100,000 times thinner than a piece of paper – some strange things happen. Materials, even everyday ones, exhibit qualities we don’t normally see. They’re much stronger, they conduct electricity better, and they’re more chemically reactive. Taking advantage of these properties, manufacturers are developing new ways to make electronics, deliver drugs, and create materials that can assemble themselves using “DNA origami.” Using such small scales, scientists are devising ways to enhance computing power and make manufacturing more energy efficient, among many other exciting applications.
Top-Down & Bottom-Up
When it comes to manufacturing with nanotechnology, there are two ways to approach it. In the top-down method, manufacturers break down large materials, carving away with chemical or physical processes to break them down to the nanoscale. This is the more common method, used to make semiconductors and a host of other common items. It’s easier to do but can lead to imperfect surface structures.
Bottom-up nanofabrication involves building structures atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule. It’s more complicated, but it allows manufacturers the freedom to create more sophisticated materials with amazing properties. This atomically precise manufacturing uses strands of DNA to build structures that assemble themselves into 2D and 3D shapes, folding much like paper origami.
Researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute won a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to design a manufacturing process for nanoelectronics using DNA. The hope is to combine those with top-down silicon-based circuits to make ultra high-density electronic systems that decrease transistor size while increasing computing power.
“Nanoscale and carbon-based electronic devices can provide functionality that is difficult to duplicate in conventional semiconductors,” Joshua Hihath, director of the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors, told ASU News. “Yet, it has been very difficult to integrate these nanodevices into useful electronic circuits. DNA nanotechnology provides an exciting platform for integrating these devices with conventional electronics, with resolutions that are far better than what can be achieved with conventional lithography.”
Among the most compelling manufacturing nanotechnologies is carbon nanotubes. Made using the bottom-up method, they are hollow tubes made from single layers of carbon atoms. Carbon nanotubes are very pure and chemically stable and excellent conductors of heat and electricity. The Arizona State team looks to use them as the basis for their electronic devices. Tiny transistors made from carbon nanotubes can power things like solar panels and electric textiles. IBM researchers even built a computer entirely from carbon nanotube transistors.
Incredibly strong and light, carbon nanotubes are useful wherever such a material might improve the longevity and flexibility of a structure. In practice, this can be anything from bicycle frames to replacing steel in construction to making spaceship parts. Other uses include making bulletproof vests and industrial robotic arms. Because of their structure and purity, they can filter out all manner of pollutants from water, a promising development for areas where clean water is hard to come by.
Perhaps the most exciting use case conceived thus far, one still in development, is nanomachines. These tiny self-assembling robots could have myriad medical uses. With their ability to travel the bloodstream unhindered, they might one day carry chemical treatments directly to tumors and other drug delivery. As part of highly sensitive and selective biosensors, carbon nanotubes could enhance medical diagnostics. That’s a lot of utility for such little structures, and researchers are just scratching the surface of what they can do.
There are countless other areas where nanotechnology in manufacturing can improve the finished product. The automotive space is a perfect example. Nanotech can increase fuel efficiency and reduce friction. Polymer nanocomposites that are flame- and chemical-resistant can make tires last longer with less wear and tear. Their light weight structure compared to conventional tires burns fuel more slowly. Nanotechnology in lubricant manufacturing reduces friction better than oil, with nanoparticles playing the role of tiny ball bearings. Nanocoatings like Fremax’s Maxcoating can reduce corrosion on brake discs. Nanocoatings are scratch-resistant, self-cleaning, and act as thermal barriers, making brakes safer and more durable.
“This automated process, as we built it, is unique in the world,” Hemerson de Souza, business director at Fremax, told Products Finishing. “We noticed a relevant market acceptance for this solution which contributes to a more sustainable use of the brake disc, combining product durability and an innovative production process.”
Chemical production accounts for about 40% of the energy usage in manufacturing and contributes a significant amount of pollution. Mechanochemistry that pushes molecules together using nanotechnology rather than harmful solvents could fix that. Researchers at the CUNY Graduate Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California-Merced were able to push molecules into more reactive shapes that require less energy to produce a desired chemical and do so with a predictable reaction that’s scalable, sustainable, and cheaper than using solvents.
“This is a really exciting breakthrough, because the discovery makes mechanochemistry a reliable means of producing chemicals, and it allows us to do so without the harmful byproducts and large energy demands of current manufacturing techniques,” lead researcher Adam Braunschweig told Nanowerk.
More nanotechnology breakthroughs are happening all the time in manufacturing.
“Today, technology is changing the workplace and the manufacturing process at an incredible rate,” Arizona State’s Hihath said.
The developments keep getting more exciting.