Innovations are snowballing in fields as diverse as medicine to clean energy.
Using ever more technology to manipulate and control structures at the nanoscale, scientists and engineers around the world are also looking to develop more effective medicines, longer lasting batteries for our mobile devices (including cars) and greener energy generation – as well as many other applications that will benefit from big advances in “small” things.
We are on the cusp of nanotechnology being useful and used right across the economy – and it’s very exciting.
Once considered science fiction, nanotech now plays a big part in our everyday life, from the materials used in computer chips and increasingly compact electronics to your phone display and the comfortable soles of running shoes.
Well before scientists understood what an atom was let alone a nanoparticle, Venetian artisans were working at nano-particle scale about 1500 years ago by treating gold in glass to generate unique visual effects.
The discipline of nanotechnology took off in the mid-1990s when the ability to “see” or more correctly image surfaces and particles in the range of 1-100nm (about 1/10,000 the width of a human hair) became possible.
From a practical point of view, nanotechnology is all about the way molecules arrange with each other to form a “higher order structure” – in much the same way as bricks and glass can be organised to make a house.
We can do this by design, where we use advanced lithography to make computer chips, or we can start to design the molecules or sub-structures so that they can organise themselves.
We can also leverage the observation that the properties of materials can also change when particles become very small.
A very visible example is the transparent sunscreens that we use on a regular basis. Gone are the days when the most effective sunscreen, “zinc cream”, was white (or vividly coloured as it became).
Zinc oxide has the inherent ability to absorb dangerous ultraviolet light but if the particles are large, they also scatter visible light, making it appear white. By making the particles smaller, they no longer scatter light and become transparent to the human eye in a relatively simple optical trick.
In another example, gold is normally considered to be a very stable, inert material but very small gold particles have interesting catalytic properties and may lead to an economic route to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
In addition, like many small metal and semiconducting materials, gold also changes colour to red and blue when they are very small, rather than their more familiar “gold” colour, which can make provide interesting optical effects from security printing to the detection of fingerprints on difficult surfaces.
Professor David Lewis leads the Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology (CNST) at Flinders where researchers work with industry under the State Government assisted NanoConnect program.
NanoConnect aims to help companies understand how the best materials and nanotechnology can help them in their processes.
The CNST, and other nanotech experts such as Professor Amanda Ellis, are leading research efforts in a number of nano fields, including making DNA nanostructures for a range of applications from bio-sensing to genotyping as well as integrating piezoelectric (energy harvesting) polymers into carbon-based energy storage devices.
Synthetic and biomaterial based polymer membranes incorporating nanotech advances are also being developed for uses such as water and gas purification.
Read more about nanotechnology and other research at Flinders in the University’s 50th anniversary publication, The Investigator Transformed.
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