Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Vinod Veedu of Oceanit gave a talk on nanotechnology to the Chemistry Section of the Hawaii Science Teachers' Association at McKinley High School yesterday. October 21-27 is National Chemistry week, and the theme this year is "Nanotechnology: The Smallest BIG Idea." Much of the following was extracted from "Nanotechnology: Big Things from a Tiny World."
Nanoscale materials have always been around, such as smoke particles and sea spray, and nano-thick gold has been used in works of art for about a millennium. Because of nanotechnology, the entire Encyclopedia Britannnica can be written on the head of a pin.
Nanotechnology only began to develop after the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (above) in 1981 to view surfaces at the atomic level. This led to a Nobel Prize in 1986. Fullerenes, famously known as Buckyballs, in honor of Buckminster Fuller, were discovered in 1985, which led to a Nobel award in 1996. Fuller, of course, is known for his geodesic dome.
How short is a nanometer? One billion (1,000,000,0000) nanometers (nm) equal a meter, which is slightly longer than a yard. A molecule of water is 0.5 nm. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nm thick. Interestingly enough, black hair has a diameter of approximately 100,000 nm, while blond hair is only one-third as wide. Human hair is 100,000 times the diameter of another new material, nanotubes (right).
Anticipating great things, I posted on graphene four years ago and, yes, a Nobel Prize was awarded two years later (two years ago). Picture chicken wire and you can visualize the shape of this material, which is a sheet of carbon where the carbon-carbon bond length is about 0.142 nm. Remember the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider? Well, the Nobel laureates isolated one sheet of graphene using adhesive tape, something you can actually do starting with pencil lead as the base material.
I asked Dr. Veedu what was a typical commercial application of nanotechnology today. He mentioned the coating on tennis balls, not on the outside, but at the core to prevent air from escaping. I got a loud audience response when I indicated that 54 years ago I was on the McKinley High School tennis team when a can of three tennis balls cost $3. Amazingly enough, with all this high tech, the price has remained just about exactly the same today, for 12 cans of Dunlop cost $33. (In 2015 I came back to look at the four comments, and can add that 36 Penn balls, the ones I used in high school, are on sale at Amazon for $29.99, making these balls even cheaper than nearly 60 years ago--and the new ones probably use nanotechnology.) You can also purchase nanotechnology tennis rackets. No, not something really small, but carbon nano-tube infused graphite is very light and many times stronger than steel.
You will more and more see nanotech in solar cells, batteries, electronics, sun block, clothing, coatings, bandages, membranes (graphene oxide, for example, does a great job separating water from ethanol, so the vodka you drink could well soon undergo this process), sterilization of products, etc. A particularly colorful application depends on the size of the dot:
Also in the future is picotechnology (PT, 1000 times smaller than nano), and, perhaps femtotechnology (FT, 1,000,000 times smaller than nano). PT would deal at the molecular level, while FT would apply to manipulation within the atomic nuclei. This is the stage of self-replicating molecular machines. But, enough for now: