has the potential to revolutionize materials, manufacturing,
energy, security and healthcare. At the Research and
Development Conference of MIT's Industrial Liaison
Program last month, Professor Edwin L. Thomas, director
of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT,
discussed the promises and challenges of nanotechnology.
is huge, with pervasive benefits for society, the
economy and national security," said Thomas.
In terms of its potential impact, "nano is on
par with electricity, transistors, the Internet and
antibiotics," he said.
National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), launched
in 1996, issued a list of "grand challenges"
for nanotechnologists. These include chemical-biological-radiological-explosive
detection and protection, manufacturing at the nanoscale,
and efficient energy conversion and storage. The NNI's
budget for 2005 approaches $1 billion.
nanotechnology still a young field, the NNI's grand
challenges are years from being met in most cases.
In the near term, according to Thomas, advances will
require a better understanding of the nano world and
experimentation with nano-enhanced technologies.
described the nano world as a little-understood realm
between the atomic and bulk properties of materials.
Nanoparticles of a material behave differently than
bulk amounts of the same material; at the nanoscale,
a material may be stronger, lighter, more water-soluble,
more heat-resistant, or a better conductor of electricity.
At the nanoscale, the color of gold is not really
"gold," but several different colors that
vary by the amount of particles present. Medieval
stained-glass makers knew this, said Thomas, even
though they didn't know about the nanoscale. They
put differing, tiny amounts of gold in the glass to
yield the various colors found in stained-glass windows.
today's scientists and engineers have found that it
takes only small amounts of a nanoparticle, precisely
placed, to change a material's physical properties.
Adding nanoparticles of clay to a polymer used to
wrap power lines increases strength and reduces flammability.
along with nanocoatings and microelectronics, are
among the more immediate nanotechnology applications,
what Thomas calls "low-hanging nano fruit."
Contrast these with carbon nanotubes, whose extraordinary
properties--strength, electrical and thermal conductivity,
large surface area--have generated much excitement,
but whose high cost ($227,000 per pound) prohibits
their large-scale use.
the 40 projects being conducted at the ISN are those
based on nanocomposites. One research team led by
Robert Langer, the Germeshausen Professor of Chemical
and Biomedical Engineering, is working to develop
tunable surfaces that may help reduce the weight of
a soldier's heaviest burdens: ammunition, batteries,
pointed out that the U.S. does not dominate the field
of nanotechnology. Only 25-30 percent of papers at
nanotech conferences come from the U.S.; many more
come from Europe. China is another competitor.
issues present another challenge. Carbon nanotubes
are similar in form to asbestos fibers, and there
is concern that they could pose a similar risk to
lung health. The evolution of nanotechnology will
likely involve both testing nanomaterials before releasing
them into the environment and taking steps to consider
social and ethical consequences.
Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies