There are two overarching findings from this WTEC study. First, it is now abundantly clear that we are able to nanostructure materials for novel performance. This is the essential theme of this field: novel performance through nanostructuring. Nanostructuring represents the beginning of a revolutionary new age in our ability to manipulate materials for the good of humanity. The synthesis and control of materials in nanometer dimensions can access new material properties and device characteristics in unprecedented ways. Panelists had seen the tip of the iceberg or the pinnacle of the pyramid before starting this study, but only since undertaking the study do we fully appreciate just how broad the field really is and begin to understand what its exciting potential and impact may really be. It is now clear that work is rapidly expanding worldwide in exploiting the opportunities offered through nanostructuring.

The second major finding is that there is a wide range of disciplines contributing to the developments in nanostructure science and technology worldwide. Each year sees an ever increasing number of researchers from diverse disciplines enter the field and an increasing breadth of novel ideas and exciting new opportunities explode on the international nanostructure scene. The rapidly mounting level of interdisciplinary activity in nanostructuring is truly exciting. The intersections between the various disciplines are where much of the novel activity resides, and this activity is growing in importance.

If nothing else, these are the two basic findings that you need to carry away from this study.

Figure 1.1
Organization of nanostructure science and technology and the WTEC study.

The broad field of nanostructure science and technology can be most conveniently organized according to the chart shown in Figure 1.1, which indicates its tremendous breadth and potential impact. The WTEC study was organized along the same lines as Figure 1.1, as is this final report, which has a separate chapter focused on each major area shown in the figure. The basis of the field is any type of material (metal, ceramic, polymer, semiconductor, glass, composite) created from nanoscale building blocks (clusters or nanoparticles, nanotubes, nanolayers, etc.) that are themselves synthesized from atoms and molecules. Thus, the controlled synthesis of those building blocks and their subsequent assembly into nanostructures is one fundamental theme of this field. This is the subject of Chapter 2 by Evelyn Hu and David Shaw. This theme draws upon all of the materials-related disciplines from physics to chemistry to biology and to essentially all of the engineering disciplines as well. In fact, there is a very strong thread from all these disciplines running throughout the fabric of this study; the biological aspects are so pervasive that special attention is given to them in Chapter 7 by Lynn Jelinski.

The second and most fundamentally important theme of this field is that the nanoscale building blocks, because of their sizes below about 100 nm, impart to the nanostructures created from them new and improved properties and functionalities heretofore unavailable in conventional materials and devices. The reason for this is that materials in this size range can exhibit fundamentally new behavior when their sizes fall below the critical length scale associated with any given property. Thus, essentially any material property can be dramatically changed and engineered through the controlled size-selective synthesis and assembly of nanoscale building blocks. Four broadly defined and overlapping application areas that cover the tremendous range of challenges and opportunities for nanostructure science and technology are dispersions and coatings, high surface area materials, functional nanodevices, and consolidated materials.

In the synthesis and assembly area (Chapter 2) we see that atoms, molecules, clusters and nanoparticles can be used as building blocks for nanostructuring. However, the useful size of these building blocks depends upon the property to be engineered, since the critical length scales for which one is designing these building blocks depends upon the particular property of interest. For multifunctional applications, more than one property and one length scale must be considered. Every property has a critical length scale, and if a nanoscale building block is made smaller than that critical length scale, the fundamental physics of that property starts to change. By altering the sizes of those building blocks, controlling their internal and surface chemistry, and controlling their assembly, it is possible to engineer properties and functionalities in unprecedented ways.

The characteristics of the building blocks, such as their size and size distribution, composition, composition variation, and morphology, must be well controlled. Also, the interfaces between the building blocks and their surroundings can be critical to performance. It is not sufficient simply to make the building blocks; one must also worry about the structure and chemistry of their surfaces and how they will interact one with another or with a matrix in which they are embedded. There is a very wide range of diverse synthesis and assembly strategies being employed in nanostructuring, all the way from fundamental biological methods for self-assembling molecules to sophisticated chemical precipitation methods to a variety of physical and chemical aerosol techniques for making clusters or nanoparticles and then dispersing them or bringing them together in consolidated forms. All of these strategies contribute in essential ways to the growth of this field. Each may have unique capabilities that will benefit a particular property, application, or process. The most generally applicable of them are likely to have significant technological impact and commercial potential.

In the area of dispersions and coatings, covered in Chapter 3 by John Mendel, a wide range of new and enhanced functionalities are now becoming available by means of nanostructuring. They cover the whole set of properties that are of interest in optical, thermal, and electrical applications. This is the most mature area of nanoscale science and technology. The many current commercial applications include printing, sunscreens, photography, and pharmaceuticals. Some examples of the present technological impact of nanostructuring are thermal and optical barriers, imaging enhancement, ink-jet materials, coated abrasive slurries, and information-recording layers. From our vantage point at present, there appears to be very strong potential impact in the areas of targeted drug delivery, gene therapy, and multifunctional coatings. Nevertheless, certain central issues must be addressed if work in this area is going to continue to affect society in meaningful new ways in the coming years. Successful nanoscale dispersions require freedom from agglomeration and surface control. Process controls are required to ensure reproducibility, reliability, and scalability. There is also a need to develop process models that lead to shorter cycle times in manufacturing, if commercialization is to be truly effective.

In the area of high surface area materials, reviewed by Donald Cox in Chapter 4, it is of primary importance to realize that nanostructured material building blocks have inherently high surface areas unless they are consolidated. For example, a nanoparticle 5 nm in diameter has about half of its atoms on its surface. If the nanoparticles are then brought together in a lightly assembled way, this surface area is available for a variety of useful applications. In fact, there is a wide range of new applications in high capacity uses for chemical and electrical energy storage, or in sensors and other applications that take copious advantage of this feature. Already there are numerous commercial applications in porous membranes or molecular sieves, drug delivery, tailored catalysts, and absorption/desorption materials. Clearly, what is required to optimize the impact of nanostructures to be really useful to society in high surface area material applications is to create materials that combine high selectivity, high product or function yield, and high stability. Thus, the major challenges in this area are critical dimensional control and long-term thermal and chemical stability. When these problems are solved, considerable future technological potential is seen in the areas of molecule-specific sensors, large hydrocarbon or bacterial filters, energy storage, and Grätzel-type solar cells.

The area of functional nanoscale devices, covered in Chapter 5 by Herb Goronkin and his Motorola colleagues, is largely driven by the need for ever smaller devices, which necessitate both new device and new circuit architectures. It is not very useful to make nanoscale devices if they cannot be assembled in a circuit with interconnects that are themselves nanoscale. Thus, a complete rethinking of this area is required. The major research and development effort worldwide in functional nanoscale devices is focused on the single electron transistor (SET) using a variety of nanostructuring approaches. However, there is also considerable worldwide activity on magnetic devices using giant magnetoresistance (GMR) of nanostructures with architectures of various modulation dimensionalities. In fact, it is the nanostructuring with various modulation dimensionalities that has created an expanding range of different functionalities that can be engineered into these GMR devices. There is also exciting carbon nanotube research being actively pursued in areas of high-field-emission displays and several other nanoscale electronic devices. This is an area still very early in its development, since nanotubes and their derivatives are a relatively recent discovery, but one with tremendous potential.

While there is little technological impact already present in the nanoscale device area other than GMR read heads, several potential areas of significant impact do appear on the horizon. These include terabit memory and microprocessing; single molecule DNA sizing and sequencing; biomedical sensors; low-noise, low-threshold lasers; and nanotubes for high brightness displays. Nevertheless, a major challenge looms in the efficient manipulation of these nanoscale building blocks and their eventual commercial scaleup, if any of this is really going to affect society as we know it. One shining example that indicates probable success in overcoming such obstacles in the future is the ability to now translate SET devices made by individual atomic manipulation into arrays of similarly functional devices created by the biological self-assembly of large molecular arrays. Such cross-disciplinary transfers of nanostructuring ideas and capabilities can be expected to increasingly impact the future successful implementation of nanostructure science and technology.

In the area of consolidated materials, reviewed by Carl Koch in Chapter 6, we have known for about a decade that the bulk behavior of materials can be dramatically altered when constituted of, or consolidated from, nanoscale building blocks. This can significantly and favorably affect the mechanical properties, magnetic properties, and optical properties of a range of engineering materials. We already know that the hardness and strength of nanophase metals can be greatly increased by nanostructuring, for example. On the other hand, the ductility and superplastic forming capabilities of nanophase ceramics have now become possible generically, leading to new processing routes that will be more cost-effective than present methods. Nanoparticle fillers in metal, ceramic, or polymer matrices can yield a very wide range of nanocomposites with unique properties. This is an area that in some cases is just beginning to be researched seriously, but it could have huge technological impact in the future. Nanostructuring can also uniquely create both soft and hard magnetic materials with greatly improved performances. These materials are already having technological impact in the areas of low-loss magnets, high-hardness and tough cutting tools, and nanocomposite cements. Potential technological applications with high commercial impact can be expected in the areas of superplastic forming of ceramics, ultrahigh-strength and tough structural materials, magnetic refrigerants, a wide range of nanoparticle-filled polymer nanocomposites based on elastomers, thermoplastics and thermosets, and ductile cements.

In Chapter 7 Lynn Jelinski describes nanoparticles, nanostructured materials, and nanodevices from the point of view of biological applications and biological analogies. Current research directed toward biological synthesis and assembly is highlighted as it pertains to the building blocks of nanotechnology, and examples are presented of state-of-the-art research on the biological aspects of dispersions and coatings, high surface area materials, and functional nanostructures. A primary finding is that although biological applications of nanostructure science and technology may not be as well developed currently as non-biological ones, they nevertheless present a very promising research and development frontier that is likely to have tremendous future impact.

Funding and research programs in nanotechnology around the world are reviewed by Mike Roco in Chapter 8. It is noteworthy that these funding levels have been increasing very rapidly in recent years as the number of researchers worldwide who are excited about this field have multiplied and funding agencies have responded accordingly. The various ways in which nanostructure science and technology research is funded in the countries the panel surveyed had often appeared quite different from a distance, but are actually quite similar to one another at closer view. Some countries, most notably Japan, have tended to primarily fund their nanostructure research through large national programs, with a rather monolithic appearance from afar, centered at national laboratories or at major national universities. On the other hand, with some exceptions, most of the nanostructure research funding in the United States and Europe tends to be based upon competition among individual research groups for smaller amounts of support. In both types of nanostructure funding schemes, however, it seems that the individual researchers actually dominate how the work proceeds. In most cases, any significant interactions among researchers occur through normal personal and professional contacts; large-scale institutionalized cooperative research efforts in this field have often not been particularly effective. A particularly impressive national funding effort in nanostructure science and technology occurs in France under the auspices of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique (CNRS). There, an extensive multidisciplinary network of laboratories in universities, industries, and national laboratories, funded partly by the CNRS and partly by industry, appear to interact successfully. It could be a very useful model to follow.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian