There has been steady technological progress in all fields of nanostructure synthesis and assembly, in no small part because of the more general availability of characterization tools having higher spatial, energy, and time resolution to clearly distinguish and trace the process of nanostructure formation. As transmission electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction techniques helped in an earlier period to relate the improved properties of "age-hardened" aluminum alloys to their nanostructure (Koch 1998), today's technological advances in materials characterization are providing new insights into the role of the nanostructure in determining macroscopic properties. The tightly-coupled iteration between characterizing the nanostructure, understanding the relationship between nanostructure and macroscopic material properties (Figure 2.2), and improved sophistication and control in determining nanostructure size and placement have accelerated the rate of progress and helped to define the critical components of this "new" field of nanostructure science and technology. Tightly focused (1-2 Ám), high brightness synchrotron X-ray sources provide detailed structural information on colloids, polymers, alloys, and other material structures, highlighting the inhomogeneities of the material with suitable spatial resolution (Hellemans 1998).

Figure 2.2.
Interactive cycle of characterization, understanding and enhanced control in the synthesis and assembly of nanostructures.

Another important enabling technology has been the now widely available scanning probe technology, including scanning tunneling microscopy and atomic force microscopy. The power of these techniques has provided impetus for developing even higher performance scanning probe tips, fabricated through microfabrication techniques. Development of different tip structures in various materials has given rise to an entire family of powerful scanning probe techniques that encompass such a wide range of characterization capabilities that one can envision "a laboratory on a tip" (Berger et al. 1996). The development of a tip technology also impacts the synthesis and assembly processes themselves: scanning probe technologies have been used as the basis of materials patterning and processing at nanometer scales (Held et al. 1997; Snow et al. 1997; and Wilder et al. 1997) and have provided information on the mechanical and thermal properties of materials at the nanoscale (Nakabeppu et al. 1995; Tighe et al. 1997; and Zhang et al. 1996).

More sophisticated in situ monitoring strategies have provided greater understanding and control in the synthesis of nanostructured building blocks, particularly those formed in vacuum environments. Molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) represents a physical vapor (gas phase) deposition technique where sub-monolayer control can be imposed on the formation of two-dimensional and, more recently, three-dimensional nanostructured materials (Leonard et al. 1993). A great deal of the understanding and control derives from the ability to carry out sensitive monitoring of the growth process in situ: reflection high energy electron diffraction (RHEED) details the nature of the surface and surface bonding, and oscillations of the RHEED intensity provide information on the growth rate (Neave et al. 1983).

The improvements brought about by these advances in technology have been substantial, but perhaps of greater importance for this nascent field of nanostructure science and technology has been the development of strategies and technologies that have been formed across the former disciplines. More reliable means of controlling nanostructure size and placement, with an end view of being able to scale up the production of such materials while maintaining the control over the nanostructure, have given impetus to a common search for novel synthesis and assembly strategies. In that search, it is apparent that the naturally occurring synthesis and assembly of biological materials can provide us with some critical insights.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian