Nanotechnology is quickly redefining how we live. The science involves exploring and manipulating structures at the nanoscale, where dimensions range between 1 to 100 nanometers in scale, to enhance the properties of everyday materials and improve almost every facet of society. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter in size. To put that in perspective, the width of a human hair is typically 100,000 nanometers.
One of the benefits of nanotechnology lies in the fact that atoms and molecules have different properties at the nanoscale than when combined to form larger particles or bulk material. Some are better at conducting electricity and heat. Some are stronger, have different magnetic properties, or better reflect light. In addition, some properties at the nanoscale change with the size of the nanoparticles themselves. Materials at the nanoscale also have far greater surface areas than the same materials in bulk which allows nanoparticles to be used, for example, to speed up chemical reactions in factories or catalytic converters in cars. Scientists are harnessing these unexpected properties to unlock a vast range of applications in a broad range of fields ranging from medicine to the environment to consumer electronics and even cars.
In medicine, for example, nanoparticles are being developed to deliver next-generation drugs and vaccines. In the textile industry, they’re leading to intelligent clothing that repels stains, odors and water, and adapts to changing temperatures. In the energy sector, nanotechnology is improving the efficiency of solar and wind power. And in consumer electronics, it’s creating ever smaller, faster, and better transistors that power the smartphones, wearables and other devices we use on a daily basis.
Fueled by high-resolution microscopy
Today, the nanotechnology market is experiencing double-digit growth, and by 2021, it’s expected to become an approximately $90.5 billion global industry. Already, products containing nanoparticles are hitting store shelves. Indeed, the Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory lists more than 1,600 nanotechnology-based consumer products available to the public including clothing, cosmetics, kitchen products, vitamin supplements, home furnishings, paints, pet supplies, toys, and games.
While the concept of nanotechnology has been around for decades, the recent explosion can be attributed to higher-resolution microscopes and increasingly powerful computers that can very rapidly construct and analyze the data. Using intuitive scanning or transmission electron microscopes (S/TEM) in combination with energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDS) researchers around the globe are obtaining nanometer- and even subnanometer-scale images and chemical data which give important insights into the arrangement and functions of these materials.
The need for large area correlative imaging at high resolution has increased recently because it allows researchers to retrieve statistically meaningful data in nanoparticles and catalysis samples. Our Maps software, enabled by Velox, automatically acquires multiple images and stitches them together to create one large final image. Maps acquisition, which can take between a minute to several hours, is done unattended. To maximize the efficiency of microscope use and for the shortest time-to-data, the longer acquisitions are typically done overnight. Our Avizo Software allows researchers to automate processing for on-the-fly processing and generating statistics such as size, surface area, perimeter, distribution, and chemical composition of nanoparticles using automated workflows. Images and chemical information from different microscopes can be correlated to keep the relevant context.
Automated sizing of large area nanoparticles at high resolution for meaningful statistics. Sample courtesy of Prof. B. Gorman and Prof. R. Richards, Colorado School of Mines.
Broad applications across diverse industries
As advancing technology makes it easier to understand nanoparticle properties, researchers across a broad spectrum of industries are finding creative ways to put this knowledge to use.
In the automobile industry, for example, car manufacturers are using nanoparticles to develop a new generation of catalytic converters that use up to 90 percent fewer precious metals to purify exhaust emissions. Automotive catalysts turn to metals such as palladium, platinum, and rhodium to convert carbon monoxide and other pollutants into non-toxic emissions. By using nanoparticles of these precious metals rather than large particles, less metal is needed to produce the same surface area over the ceramic base of the catalyst, saving car manufacturers money and reducing the amount of palladium and platinum pollution emitted into the air.
In the aerospace industry, scientists are using nanotechnology to create stronger, lighter-weight aluminum alloys that improve passenger safety and reduce fuel costs. Viewing aluminum alloys at the nanoscale level reveals dislocations, grain boundaries, inclusions and precipitates.
Large area distribution of precipitates in aluminum at high resolution. Sample courtesy of University of Manchester and University of Trento.
By redesigning these materials by utilizing information at the nanoscale to avoid these defects, researchers have the potential to create far stronger, lighter-weight aircraft components that reduce cracks and improve fuel efficiency.
As nanotechnology-based products start to proliferate, their safety and environmental impacts are being studied. One area of research involves exploring the health impacts of nanoparticles used to enhance food and cosmetics—including titanium dioxide, silver, and gold. The goal is to formulate a standard approach to identify and characterize the proportion of nanoparticles in food additives and determine the volume of nanoparticles that are safe for human contact and consumption.IMEKOFOODS is planning a September conference in Brussels to discuss food nanomaterials and other food industry topics.
These are just a few of numerous nanoparticle research areas that are taking place.
Yuri Rikers is a product marketing manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Subscribe to Accelerating Microscopy to receive new posts straight to your inbox.