Still in its infancy, research and development at the nanoscale has already made an impact. Yet roadblocks to commercialization still exist.
Nanotechnology typically describes any material, device, or technology where feature sizes are smaller than 100 nanometers in dimension. However, this new and uncharted direction in research provides a large spark for new product and drug delivery development. To achieve these discoveries, scientists must rely on specialized instruments and materials to drive their experiments and analysis.
R&D Magazine surveyed leading instrument and materials vendors to gauge their opinion on nanotechnology’s growth and the challenges this science faces.
As researchers began working in nanoscale domains, most efforts focused on characterizing materials and understanding the relationships between their structure (composition) and properties. As scientists improved their understanding of these structure-property relationships, “their focus shifted to relationships between structure and function,” says Jens Greiser, VP/CTO,FEI Co., Hillsboro, Ore. To achieve this, microscopy and instrument vendors realized they would first have to make it easy to see structures at the atomic scale. For example, transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) have been used for years to characterize the size and shape of nanoparticles, but until aberration-corrected optics became commercially available, TEM could not clearly visualize atomic structures at the particle surface. With this added analytical capability, researchers could begin to establish a relationship between the structure of a nanoscale feature and its properties and function.
While characterization tools have strengthened, so have the actual use of nanomaterials. Over the past several years, some of the most dramatic advances in nanotechnology have come from new applications resulting from the development and modification of nanoscale-enhanced materials; thus the trend of movement from conceptual nanoengineered products to real-world applications.
The semiconductor industry has manufactured nanoscale features for many years, but beyond this industry many commercial nanotechnology-enabled products have integrated nanomaterials as passive components.
“Another trend is the transition from passive to active devices incorporating nanotechnology,” says Mike Nelson, CTO at NanoInk, Skokie, Ill. It’s been estimated, according to Nelson, that in the last decade nanotechnology has provided solutions for about 50% of new projects in energy conversion, energy storage, and carbon encapsulation. Also, in 2010, 15% of advanced clinical diagnostics and therapeutics were nanotechnology based.
Nanomedicine and energy are leading applications of nanotechnology, says Nelson, along with many of the other vendors surveyed, and represent two of the most important research areas.
Jeremy Warren, CEO, NanoSight, Salisbury, U.K., identifies an increasing emphasis on bionanotechnology as a trend he sees as the inherent complexity and heterogeneity of biological nanoparticles make increasing demands on characterization technologies. In biotechnology and life science applications, incorporation of nanoparticles as part of biosensing and drug delivery systems has taken off. Used in conjunction with biological systems, nanomaterials have applications in the early detection and treatment of various diseases, particularly cancer.
“Novel nanomarkers that can identify and visualize cancer cells can help diagnose malignancy without invasive biopsy procedures,” says Natasha Erdman, FE-SEM product manager, JEOL USA, Peabody, Mass. Metal-oxide nanoparticles can bind to antibodies that identify specific receptors and provide contrast for imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT). Since 2010, two nanotechnology-based cancer drugs have passed regulatory scrutiny and are on the market—Doxil and Abraxane, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. In recent years, the FDA approved numerous Investigational New Drug applications for nanoformulations, enabling clinical trials and further possibilities for nanomedicine.
Also, nanotechnology continues to find new roles in energy, from nanostructures used to make light-emitting diodes (LEDs) more efficient and enhance solar cell performance, to nanomaterials in advanced energy storage devices. Current developments involve modification of solar film structures with dopants to improve their efficiency, as well as understanding nanopore connectivity in gas shale for natural gas exploration.
“Our current research is in the area of coatings that can assist the oil and general well drilling industry,” says Brian Doud, general manager, Powdermet Inc., Euclid, Ohio. “We’ve developed antifriction and anticorrosive materials that can be applied to the inside of oil well pipe before they’re sold to the drilling company. These materials can take the heat and rigor of the drilling process, while extending the life of the down-hole pipe and improving the safety of the well.”
Nanotechnology’s hand in energy
While nanotechnology use in biomedical applications has grown, some of the strongest innovations he sees in nanotechnology are related to energy storage and production, according to Erik Novak, director of advanced development, Bruker NanoSurfaces Division, Santa Barbara, Calif. “We have customers designing specialized structures that increase the capacity and durability of next-generation batteries, while others are using nanotechnology to create devices that are more energy efficient.”
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