Much of nanoscience and many nanotechnologies are concerned with producing new or enhanced materials. Nanomaterials can be constructed by 'top down' techniques, producing very small structures from larger pieces of material, for example by etching to create circuits on the surface of a silicon microchip. They may also be constructed by 'bottom up' techniques, atom by atom or molecule by molecule. One way of doing this is self-assembly, in which the atoms or molecules arrange themselves into a structure due to their natural properties. Crystals grown for the semiconductor industry provide an example of self assembly, as does chemical synthesis of large molecules. A second way is to use tools to move each atom or molecule individually. Although this ‘positional assembly’ offers greater control over construction, it is currently very laborious and not suitable for industrial applications.
It has been 25 years since the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was invented, followed four years later by the atomic force microscope, and that's when nanoscience and nanotechnology really started to take off. Various forms of scanning probe microscopes based on these discoveries are essential for many areas of today's research. Scanning probe techniques have become the workhorse of nanoscience and nanotechnology research. Here is a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) image of a gold tip for Near-field Scanning Optical Microscopy (SNOM) obtained by Focussed Ion Beam (FIB) milling. The small tip at the center of the structure measures some tens of nanometers.
Gold Tip for SNOM, imaged by SEM, 2006, Gian Carlo Gazzadi and Pietro Gucciardi, with Lucia Covi.(www.s3.infm.it/blowup) From Blow Up. Images from the nanoworld, edited by S3 Research Center (INFM-CNR), Damiani, Bologna. © S3 National Research Center (INFM-CNR), Modena, Italy
Current applications of nanoscale materials include very thin coatings used, for example, in electronics and active surfaces (for example, self-cleaning windows). In most applications the nanoscale components will be fixed or embedded but in some, such as those used in cosmetics and in some pilot environmental remediation applications, free nanoparticles are used. The ability to machine materials to very high precision and accuracy (better than 100nm) is leading to considerable benefits in a wide range of industrial sectors, for example in the production of components for the information and communication technology, automotive and aerospace industries.
Although a broad definition, we categorise nanomaterials as those which have structured components with at least one dimension less than 100nm. Materials that have one dimension in the nanoscale (and are extended in the other two dimensions) are layers, such as a thin films or surface coatings. Some of the features on computer chips come in this category. Materials that are nanoscale in two dimensions (and extended in one dimension) include nanowires and nanotubes. Materials that are nanoscale in three dimensions are particles, for example precipitates, colloids and quantum dots (tiny particles of semiconductor materials). Nanocrystalline materials, made up of nanometre-sized grains, also fall into this category. Some of these materials have been available for some time; others are genuinely new. The aim of this chapter is to give an overview of the properties, and the significant foreseeable applications of some key nanomaterials.
Two principal factors cause the properties of nanomaterials to differ significantly from other materials: increased relative surface area, and quantum effects. These factors can change or enhance properties such as reactivity, strength and electrical characteristics. As a particle decreases in size, a greater proportion of atoms are found at the surface compared to those inside. For example, a particle of size 30 nm has 5% of its atoms on its surface, at 10 nm 20% of its atoms, and at 3 nm 50% of its atoms. Thus nanoparticles have a much greater surface area per unit mass compared with larger particles. As growth and catalytic chemical reactions occur at surfaces, this means that a given mass of material in nanoparticulate form will be much more reactive than the same mass of material made up of larger particles.
To understand the effect of particle size on surface area, consider a U.S. silver dollar. The silver dollar contains 26.96 grams of coin silver, has a diameter of about 40 mm, and has a total surface area of approximately 27.70 square centimeters. If the same amount of coin silver were divided into tiny particles – say 1 nanometer in diameter – the total surface area of those particles would be 11,400 square meters. When the amount of coin silver contained in a silver dollar is rendered into 1 nm particles, the surface area of those particles is 4.115 million times greater than the surface area of the silver dollar! (Source)
In tandem with surface-area effects, quantum effects can begin to dominate the properties of matter as size is reduced to the nanoscale. These can affect the optical, electrical and magnetic behaviour of materials, particularly as the structure or particle size approaches the smaller end of the nanoscale. Materials that exploit these effects include quantum dots, and quantum well lasers for optoelectronics.
For other materials such as crystalline solids, as the size of their structural components decreases, there is much greater interface area within the material; this can greatly affect both mechanical and electrical properties. For example, most metals are made up of small crystalline grains; the boundaries between the grain slow down or arrest the propagation of defects when the material is stressed, thus giving it strength. If these grains can be made very small, or even nanoscale in size, the interface area within the material greatly increases, which enhances its strength. For example, nanocrystalline nickel is as strong as hardened steel. Understanding surfaces and interfaces is a key challenge for those working on nanomaterials, and one where new imaging and analysis instruments are vital.