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A five-step plan for nano

A five-stage, and very demanding protocol, for taking a nanoscience discovery to a consumer nanotechnology product has been outlined by engineer Michael Kelly of the University of Cambridge. Kelly, who is also based at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, explains how a clear understanding of how and why experimental silicon semiconductor and liquid crystal technology took so long to move from the laboratory bench to the manufacturing plant and mass production and consumption should underpin predictions about current nanoscience.

Kelly also explains why once a technology, such as the silicon chip, is in place it is very difficult to usurp even with advances such as conducting polymers and novel forms of carbon from buckyballs (fullerenes) and nanotubes to graphene despite the hyperbole that surrounds such novel materials. He points out that too little attention is paid to the many hurdles facing the nanoscientist hoping to be revolutionary nanotechnologist. But, his systematic protocol reveals what the aspirational need to know in making that quantum leap.

If one is working towards nanotechnology, then one must first identify the environment in which a new nanomaterial will be superior to the current state-of-the art material, otherwise the science becomes a solution looking for a problem. There are a few examples of fundamental science, the laser being a rare example, where uses are found after the fact, but, Kelly suggests that, in a burgeoning field with myriad projects and experiments final outcomes do not commonly justify the initial effort.

Secondly, it is important to identify the critical properties of the new nanomaterial and to be able to reproduce them absolutely in different samples with values to within better than 10 percent of the mean or there is no possibility of mass production. He points out that semiconductor tunnelling devices have only very recently addressed this problem.

Thirdly, a way to make the material or device with pre-specified performance and at high yield is essential from an early stage of development or again wasted raw materials will keep end product costs too high for a product to be commercially viable.

Kelly’s fourth commandment asserts that for a product, one must be able to simulate its performance from first principles and to readily invert properties at any stage of development so that it might be reverse engineered and adapted to resolve discrepancies where a device deviates from design.

Fifth and finally, even if the first four steps of the protocol are addressed adequately lifetime performance must be demonstrated as being superior to any current state-of-the art technology. He cites multi-heterojunction tandem solar cell technology as being on the cusp of serious development in this regard, one might also mention organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) and their development from unstable devices in the early 1990s to fully fledged commercial technology today.

The shift from traditional manufacturing to the current developments based on novel and even designer materials means that industry now places great emphasis on product development taking place at the laboratory bench and expects much more than a one-off result before adopting new science and converting it into technology, nano or otherwise.

Research Blogging IconKelly M.J. (2014). From nanoscience to nanotechnology: what can and what cannot be manufactured, International Journal of Nanotechnology, 11 (5/6/7/8) 441. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1504/ijnt.2014.060563

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