A series of breakthroughs in materials and design has allowed manufacturers to work at scales smaller than a billionth of a meter. At these sizes, it's possible to create devices and objects that typically aren't possible.

Nanotechnology in Manufacturing
Nanotechnology in Manufacturing

Scott Huntington | Off The Throttle

A series of breakthroughs in materials and design has allowed manufacturers to work at scales smaller than a billionth of a meter. At these sizes, it's possible to create devices and objects that typically aren't possible and to fabricate materials that behave differently due to their dimensions. 

These materials and technologies — referred to as nanotechnology — offer a range of benefits for manufacturers. Despite the newness of the technology, they are already being used in mass production.

Below, we'll break down what nanotechnology is and how the new technology is relevant to manufacturing.


What Is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the manufacture and manipulation of nanoscopic materials and technology. Because the field has only come into wide use in manufacturing recently, there are competing definitions for what counts as nano. One popular definition for nanomaterials, which make up the bulk of nanotechnology currently in use, was set by the European Commission. It defines nano as any material made up of at least 50% of particles between one and 100 nanometers in size — or, about one-hundredth to one-tenth the size of the average germ.

This definition includes both manufactured and naturally occurring nanomaterials, like volcanic ash.

Nanotechnology has grown rapidly over the past few years. There are a few reasons for the sudden growth, including the practical. Working at microscopic scales allows you to, for example, create ultra-thin and flexible circuit boards. Plus, there are unique advantages that only nanomaterials can offer.

These tiny materials often behave differently than standard materials and have unique or unusual properties as a result of their structure. For example, there are carbon nanotubes, which are some of the best-known nanomaterials. These nanotubes are incredibly strong and lightweight, have a near-limit tip-surface area, are highly chemically stable and are more thermally conductive than diamond.

In addition to these nanoscale materials, nanotechnology also includes domains like nanomedicine, nanoelectronics and nanorobotics. These are subdomains of larger fields that are operating on nanoscale. Outside of nanomaterials, nanorobotics and nanoelectronics are likely the most relevant to manufacturing.


Manufacturing Approaches to Nanomaterials

There are two broad categories of approach to nanofabrication, the manufacturing of nanomaterials: top-down and bottom-up.

With a top-down manufacturing approach, a manufacturer will start with larger materials and use chemical and physical processes to break them down into nanoscopic elements. This approach is commonly employed when a manufacturer needs to apply a material that's readily available at normal scales at the nano level. For example, diamonds have naturally high thermal conductivity. Diamond nanoparticles show similar properties, but can be used in different ways or mixed into liquids like mineral oil.

Bottom-up manufacturing starts with individual molecules or compounds and uses a combination of chemical and physical processes to join them together into nanoscopic materials. Many nanomaterials that have unique or unusual structures — like carbon nanotubes — are manufactured with a bottom-up approach.


How Nanomaterials Are Used in Manufacturing

Because there is such a range of different nanomaterials, there is also a wide variety of potential applications.

Carbon nanotubes are some of the most widely used nanomaterials, simply due to the material's set of unique characteristics. They are already being used in situations where a manufacturer needs high wear resistance and break strength at a light weight — for example, bike frames, bulletproof vests, industrial robot arms, sailboat hulls and spaceship components, among others.

The unique structure of these nanotubes also makes them effective in water purification and drug delivery. The rings of carbon in the nanotubes' structure can filter out many chemical, biological and physical pollutants from water. Their shape can be wrapped around interior components, shielding them during drug delivery. 

Carbon nanofibers are sometimes used in the manufacture of safety wear, especially biotextiles, where they can provide several highly useful qualities — like liquid and stain resistance, as well as antimicrobial properties.

Carbon nanoparticles can also be used in combination with heavy, non-nano materials, like steel. When distributed throughout steel, these nanoparticles can increase its strength. They can ultimately reduce the amount of material needed, creating lighter weight objects without depending entirely on nanomaterials.


Other Applications of Nanotechnology in Manufacturing

Nanotechnology can also be used to create more effective and stable lubricants, which are useful in a variety of industrial applications. At the nanoscale, materials can act similarly to ball-bearings in petroleum-based lubricants, keeping things flowing smoothly, ensuring even distribution and limiting aggregation. They can make sure machine components stay lubricated, even in the face of rapid changes in temperature or pressure.

Nanotechnology is also used in car manufacturing. Tire manufacturers are increasingly using polymer nanocomposites in high-end tires to increase their durability and wear resistance. In addition, nanotech can be applied in the manufacture of improved consumer car products, like motor oil.

In electronics, nanotechnology enables the manufacture of tiny electronics and electric devices — like nanoscale transistors made out of carbon nanotubes. The extremely small scale makes it possible to print thin and highly flexible items — like plastic solar panels, electric textiles and flexible gas sensors. 

Other applications of nanotechnology that have shown serious promise include nanomachines or nanites — mechanical or robotic devices that operate at the nanoscale. Nanomachines are, for the most part, future-tech and not widely used in manufacturing right now. However, this is expected to change soon — possibly, within the decade. Researchers are already starting to be applied in certain settings — especially in medicine, where nanoscopic, self-assembling devices can be used in ways that standard machines can't.


How Nanotechnology Is Changing Manufacturing

The widespread use of nanotechnology is fairly new. Recently, however, the technology has rapidly become more popular, as new research and experimental design has made it clear how effective these nanotechnologies can be. 

Popular nanomaterials, like carbon nanotubes, are already widely fabricated and applied in the manufacture of a variety of goods, including sailboat hulls, bicycle frames and spaceship components. In electronics, design at the nanoscale is creating highly flexible devices and circuit boards. Soon, nanoscale robots — called nanomachines or nanites — may soon revolutionize medical device construction. Nanotech and manufacturing will shortly be linked in ways that will inform future processes


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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