While nanotechnology has been around for many years, there continues to be more revolutionary developments using nanoscale breakthroughs. Some of the most promising innovations include new techniques in nano-based manufacturing of both devices and nanoparticles, nano-based textiles that have potential in military and battery technology applications, and new technologies that can replace traditional electronics devices with smaller, more cost-efficient options.

Nano-Based Manufacturing

Emory Chan of Berkeley Lab directs WANDA, a nanocrystal-making robot, to perform complex work-flows that traditionally require extensive chemistry experience. (Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)
IBM scientists have created a 3D map of the Earth so small that 1,000 of them could fit on one grain of salt. The scientists accomplished this through a new technique that uses a tiny, silicon tip with a sharp apex — 100,000 times smaller than a sharpened pencil — to create patterns and structures as small as 15 nanometers at greatly reduced cost and complexity. This patterning technique opens new prospects for developing nano-sized objects in fields such as electronics, chip technology, medicine, life sciences, and optoelectronics.

The tip, similar to the kind used in atomic force microscopes, is attached to a bendable cantilever that controllably scans the surface of the substrate material with the accuracy of one nanometer. By applying heat and force, the nano-sized tip can remove substrate material based on predefined patterns, thus operating like a “nano-milling” machine with ultra-high precision. Similar to using a milling machine, more material can be removed to create complex 3D structures with nanometer precision by modulating the force or by re-addressing individual spots.

The new technique achieves resolutions as high as 15 nanometers, with a potential of going even smaller. Using existing methods such as e-beam lithography, it is becoming increasingly challenging to fabricate patterns at resolutions below 30 nanometers, where the technical limitations of that method are reached.

Compared to expensive e-beam-lithography tools that require several processing steps and equipment that can easily fill a laboratory, the tool created by IBM scientists — which can sit on a tabletop — promises improved and extended capabilities at very high resolutions, but at one-fifth to one-tenth of the cost and with far less complexity.

Potential applications range from the fast prototyping of nano-sized devices for future computer chips, to the production of well-defined, micron-sized optical elements like aspheric lenses and lens arrays for optoelectronics and on-chip optical communication.

This 3D rendered image shows a heated nanoscale silicon tip, borrowed from atomic force microscopy, that is chiseling away material from a substrate to create a nanoscale 3D map of the world. At this size, 1,000 world maps could fit on a grain of salt. (Image courtesy of Advanced Materials).
Advances in nano-manufacturing are critical in order to mass-produce, at a cost-effective level, nano materials for a myriad of uses. Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA) have taken nano-manufacturing to the ultimate automated level. They have established a revolutionary nanocrystal-making robot capable of producing nanocrystals with staggering precision. This one-of-a-kind robot provides colloidal nanocrystals with custom-made properties for electronics, biological labeling, and luminescent devices.

This robotic engineer is named WANDA (Workstation for Automated Nanomaterial Discovery and Analysis), and was developed in collaboration with Symyx Technologies at the Molecular Foundry, a U.S. Department of Energy user facility at Berkeley Lab. By automating the synthesis of these nanocrystals, WANDA circumvents the issues facing traditional techniques, which can be laborious and are difficult to reproduce from one laboratory to the next. WANDA’s synthetic prowess can help researchers sift through a large, diverse pool of materials for specific applications.