Evelyn L. Hu

University of California, Santa Barbara

David T. Shaw

State University of New York, Buffalo


The common theme of this WTEC study is the engineering of materials with novel (i.e., improved) properties through the controlled synthesis and assembly of the material at the nanoscale level. The range of applications is extremely broad, and these will be described in further detail in subsequent chapters in this report. The corresponding means of synthesis and assembly are similarly wide-ranging. But however multifaceted the synthesis approaches and the ultimate applications, there are common issues and unique defining features of these nanostructured materials.

First, there is the recognition of critical scale lengths that define the material structure and organization, generally in the nanometer range, and that ultimately determine the fundamental macroscopic properties of the material. Research in nanostructured materials is motivated by the belief that ability to control the building blocks or nanostructure of the materials can result in enhanced properties at the macroscale: increased hardness, ductility, magnetic coupling, catalytic enhancement, selective absorption, or higher efficiency electronic or optical behavior.

Synthesis and assembly strategies accommodate precursors from liquid, solid, or gas phase; employ chemical or physical deposition approaches; and similarly rely on either chemical reactivity or physical compaction to integrate nanostructure building blocks within the final material structure. The variety of techniques is shown schematically in Figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1.
Schematic of variety of nanostructure synthesis and assembly approaches.

The "bottom-up" approach first forms the nanostructured building blocks and then assembles them into the final material. An example of this approach is the formation of powder components through aerosol techniques (Wu et al. 1993) and then the compaction of the components into the final material. These techniques have been used extensively in the formation of structural composite materials. One "top-down" approach begins with a suitable starting material and then "sculpts" the functionality from the material. This technique is similar to the approach used by the semiconductor industry in forming devices out of an electronic substrate (silicon), utilizing pattern formation (such as electron beam lithography) and pattern transfer processes (such as reactive ion etching) that have the requisite spatial resolution to achieve creation of structures at the nanoscale. This particular area of nanostructure formation has tremendous scope, warranting its own separate study, is a driving issue for the electronics industry, and will not be a principal theme of this study. Another top-down approach is "ball-milling," the formation of nanostructure building blocks through controlled, mechanical attrition of the bulk starting material (Koch 1989). Those nano building blocks are then subsequently assembled into a new bulk material.

In fact, many current strategies for material synthesis integrate both synthesis and assembly into a single process, such as characterizes chemical synthesis of nanostructured materials (Murray et al. 1993; Katari et al. 1994). The degree of control required over the sizes of the nanostructure components, and the nature of their distribution and bonding within the fully formed material varies greatly, depending on the ultimate materials application. Achieving selective optical absorption in a material (e.g., UV-blocking dispersions) may allow a wide range of sizes of the component nanostructure building blocks, while quantum dot lasers or single electron transistors require a far tighter distribution of size of the nanostructure components. Compaction methods may provide excellent adhesion for nanocomposite materials of improved structural performance (e.g., ductility), but such interfaces may be unsatisfactory for electronic materials.

The intention of this chapter of the report is not to recapitulate in detail the various synthesis and assembly techniques that have been and are being employed in the fabrication of nanostructured materials; that detail can be found in succeeding chapters as well as in excellent summary descriptions provided in the May 8-9, 1997 WTEC workshop proceedings (Siegel, Hu, and Roco 1998). Rather, in attempting to capture the salient features of a new impetus for and interest in a field of nanostructure science and technology, it is more useful to identify the emerging commonalities than the differences among synthesis and assembly approaches.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian