In 2016, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Ben Feringa for their work in the area of molecular machines. Although it had long been recognised that natural motors and machines composed of molecules are central to nearly every biological process, from collecting and storing the sun’s energy to cell movement and the replication operations that facilitate healing in every living thing, what makes this Nobel Prize award particularly significant is that the men had, after 36 years in development, designed and produced their own molecular lifts, artificial muscles and minuscule motors.
But the concept goes further back still. On 29 December 1959, long predating the term ‘nanotechnology’, scientist Richard Feynman, also a Nobel Prize recipient, gave a presentation where he described a process in which individual atoms and molecules could be manipulated to perform a specific function. However, it would take another 22 years before the development of a microscope powerful enough to see individual atoms launched modern nanotechnology in 1981.
Today, nanoscience has developed even further, driving the latest innovations in next-generation material technology. Building materials, one atom at a time, that are composed and structured exactly as intended, and with properties once thought to be unfeasible, is now possible. But even with the considerable environmental and societal benefits modern materials science is purported to offer, there are a number of less fanciful and more practical hurdles that next-generation materials still need to overcome before they become widely applicable or profitable.
How Nano Innovates Next-Generation Materials
Mihail C. Roco of America’s National Science Foundation is universally credited with the advent of nanoscale science in 1991. A 2019 report commissioned by the European Union Observatory for Nanomaterials addressed the shifts in the technology since then, simplifying nano classifications into three groups: passive, reactive and multifunctional.
Passive Nano Materials
Materials such as advanced composites for building are significantly lighter and more resilient than traditional materials. Carbon nanotubes that are 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, yet 100 times stronger than steel at only one-sixth of the weight, could be used to make airplanes and cars more durable and resilient while also more fuel-efficient. Moreover, they’ll likely be essential in space travel.
This technology may sound futuristic, but it’s not new. In 2015, a team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science created a super-strong yet light structural metal with an extremely high stiffness-to-weight ratio. The new metal, composed of magnesium infused with ceramic silicon carbide nanoparticles, could have commercial and consumer applications in transportation, mobile electronics and biomedical devices.
Adapting and responding to changes in their environment, reactive materials are based on natural biology. From walls that self-regulate the climate in homes and offices to metals that heal – or even grow and shrink – on their own, self-healing and self-assembling materials could reduce the industrial costs associated with equipment degradation or avoid failure brought about by metal fatigue altogether. Even molecular nano-factories could leverage reactive molecules in a way that ultimately produces macroscopic, or human-sized, products.
Many aspects of reactive materials in general have significant potential in manufacturing settings and consumer product development. Auxetic materials composed of molecular-size hinges become thicker when force is applied, making them suitable for body armour, packing material, knee and elbow padding or any other application which would benefit from shock absorption. Superomniphobic materials repel virtually all liquids, making them ideal as chemical shields or for use in antibacterial environments, while synthetic aerogels, which use gas in place of liquid, are ultralight porous solids that can be used to improve thermal insulation, chemical absorption or the efficiency of electrochemical supercapacitors that store energy.
Multifunctional or Hybrid Nanosystems
Complementing known platforms through nano-sized entities that carry the majority of the load burden, hybrid and multifunctional nanosystems make traditional materials more efficient by integrating organic and inorganic components. Molecular organic layers attached to the silicon used today in electronic circuit boards could provide higher performance and even functional smart feedback.
Professor Gary Rubloff’s research group at the University of Maryland’s School of Engineering has designed nano-sized structures that make up a material film capable of storing solar or wind energy ten times more efficiently than what is commercially used today. Additionally, professor Rubloff leads the US contingent of an $18.4-million international initiative sponsored by the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation to develop anode material in batteries with a greater than 30% improvement in efficiency compared with current Li-ion batteries. By 2029, the global demand for next-generation anode materials is expected to push the value of the market to US$6.28 billion.
Macro Entry Barriers For Nano
Recent advances in next-generation materials underscore just how significantly they may impact society and the world. In the spring of 2019, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in northern California created a next-generation, ‘closed-loop’ plastic called polydiketoenamine that can be recycled indefinitely and produced in any colour, shape or form. It performs its transformative magic on a molecular level and is hoped to improve the global recycling rate that currently stands at around 18 per cent.
But even with such promise for the planet’s future, next-generation materials face many hurdles before they make the leap from the world’s laboratories into living rooms. These include:
Viability of real-world applications: There’s always a risk that new discoveries in the lab won’t scale to real-world manufacturing or business applications that have cost, performance and market considerations. Next-generation materials have to meet strict standards of strength, durability and non-toxicity.
Upfront research risk: Regardless of how promising a new material may seem, the cost of development and testing creates a financial barrier to entry that may make ROI improbable, insignificant or even impossible.
Still a small pond: The relatively small research community in the nano next-generation materials space has limited cooperation and resources.
Demand variables: Many next-generation materials boast energy savings that rely on demand that is closely tied to fluctuations in energy cost.
Nano and next-generation materials technology are poised to innovate well into the future through their convergence with information technology, biotechnology, cognitive science and artificial intelligence. For now, however, multifunctional hybrid materials that build on current and emerging technologies hold the most immediate commercial and consumer promise, making them the fastest-growing nano and next-generation materials category.
In 2018, 1,450 patents that use hybrid, multifunctional nanosystems were filed compared with just 105 in 2004. Moreover, as of 2018, a total of 9,560 hybrid nano patents had been filed compared with only 3,800 that deploy reactive nanotechnology and just 277 passive nano patents. Obviously, improving on what is already used is the innovative path of least resistance, but with truly revolutionary materials that could make appreciable societal and environmental differences already available, the big question may be: when will nano forces become stronger than market forces?