As applications for nanotechnology become increasingly commonplace, it is essential for businesses of all kinds to understand the potential—and the challenges—of working in this rapidly evolving landscape.

Demystifying Manufacturing at the Nanoscale

Brian W. Anthony, co-director of MIT’s Medical Electronic Device Realization Center and associate director of MIT.nano | MIT.nano

Manufacturers are used to working in dimensions that can be seen by the naked eye; however, new tools are making it possible to characterize and fabricate materials at a much, much smaller scale. As applications for nanotechnology become increasingly commonplace, it is essential for businesses of all kinds to understand the potential—and the challenges—of working in this rapidly evolving landscape. 

When it comes to manufacturing at the nanoscale, here are five key points to keep top of mind:

The nano is small—really, really small. One nanometer is a billionth (10-9) of a meter. That is so extremely small that it’s the scale at which biology and chemistry—meaning life itself—occurs. It is also the realm where quantum effects come into play. That means that any knowledge or intuition you have about physical systems and how they behave may not necessarily apply when working at the nanoscale. In some ways it is like lifting a corner of the periodic table and discovering another version underneath. The elements themselves are the same but they, and the compounds they form, may have entirely new properties.

The nanoscale has long played a (hidden) role in manufacturing processes. Although many manufacturing processes depend on chemistry that happens at the nanoscale, the details of these molecular reactions have been poorly understood—until recently. For example, it took modern transmission electron microscopy to show that Damascus steel, which has been revered for centuries because of its strength, is comprised of cylindrical molecular structures with diameters that measure only a few nanometers. These carbon nanotubes give the steel its exceptional tensile strength and are formed by thermal cycling during the steel’s manufacturing process. Likewise, we now know that prized stained glass dating back to the 15th century includes tiny fragments of silver that are smaller than the wavelengths of light. These silver nanoparticles reflect red in light and yellow light differently, giving these particular windows a uniquely beautiful appearance. Examples like these illustrate how fundamental the nanoscale is to certain manufacturing processes—even though, because of its small size, its role may be unrecognized.

New tools allow manufacturers to unlock the enormous potential of the nanoscale. Technological advancements are enabling more and more manufacturers to better understand and take advantage of phenomena at the nanoscale. Many new tools are commercially available and reasonably cost effective, making it easier for companies to both characterize materials at the nanoscale and fabricate novel products, such as ceramic thin films that can be used for alternative energy storage and solar-to-synthetic fuel conversion. It is also important to note that working at the nanoscale involves enormous amounts of data, both as inputs and outputs. Manufacturers are also benefiting from new systems and solutions that can manage, process, and utilize these huge data streams. 

Many manufacturers are actively translating research from the lab into the marketplace. There are numerous well-established use cases for nanotechnology across a range of sectors—from medicine and information technology to transportation, food, and retail—and new applications are continually being added to the mix. Remember the silver nanoparticles in the stained glass windows mentioned earlier? The color they appear changes based on their size and shape. Manufacturers are using that same phenomena to make low cost sensors for viruses, such as Ebola, West Nile, Dengue, and now COVID-19. Essentially, the principle of operation is to coat a nanoparticle with a molecule that will preferentially bind the virus of interest. Once that molecular reaction occurs, the appearance of the nanoparticle changes, indicating that the virus has been detected. Other manufacturers are using nanoscience to produce thin-layer membranes that are only a micron or a single atom thick. These membranes have unique optical and electrical properties and can be used as high-temperature semi-conductors or to produce useful optical fields for computation and machine learning. 

The future of nanoscale manufacturing is bright. Nanotechnology offers vast opportunities for innovation. As our understanding of nanoscience evolves, manufacturers can expect expanded toolsets for the fabrication, study, and manipulation of nanoscale structures and systems, and that will accelerate the development of manufacturing applications even more. 

Manufacturing has reached a tipping point where it is now possible to design, fabricate, and characterize at the nanoscale in virtually every industry. Manufacturers should anticipate continued disruption as researchers move forward with nanotechnology and these revolutionary ways of understanding and working with matter. 





About Brian W. Anthony
Brian Anthony is the co-director of MIT’s Medical Electronic Device Realization Center and associate director of MIT.nano. He is also a lead instructor of the MIT Professional Education course,
Nanoscience and Nanotech: Industrial Application and Transformation. With more than 25 years of experience in product realization, Dr. Anthony designs instruments and techniques to monitor and control physical systems. His work involves systems analysis and design, calling upon mechanical, electrical, and optical engineering, along with computer science and optimization.

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

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