Nanotech Frontiers: Nanotech Holds Great Promise, But Also Poses Big Challenges
Every day, researchers take giant strides toward realizing the huge potential of nanotechnology. Their efforts have already resulted in strong, lightweight materials.
"Most of the research is focused on improving material properties or developing new materials," says Hrishikesh Bidwe, a technical analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. (San Antonio, TX). For instance, scientists have engineered composite materials that are a hundred times stronger than steel, yet weigh only one-sixth of its mass.
"These materials will initially find use in various high-performance industries, such as aerospace and defense," adds Bidwe. "If price can be significantly reduced, consumer applications will probably become the major market for nanophase materials."
Though highly effective, these new materials have certain disadvantages, such as their high initial cost. "Despite such shortcomings, nanomaterials have immense potential to initiate innovation in almost all fields of science," claims Bidwe. "Nanotechnology is well poised to become an accepted technology in years to come."
However, early application development is likely to be hampered by the lack of economies of scale. For example, manufacturing costs of products made with nanomaterials will continue to exceed products made using conventional materials, making it prohibitively expensive for some applications. "This is the reason nanomaterials are currently being used only in critical applications where superior performance takes precedence over cost," explains Bidwe.
Another deterrent is the lack of knowledge about certain properties of nanomaterials, especially in health care applications, with regard to their reactions to the human body. As a result, many health care products based on nanopowders are not yet commercially available in the United States.
"Though theoretical explanations are available on the possible reactions of nano-coated or nano-enhanced drugs within the human body, the real effect is yet to be ascertained; and until results are available, their reliability is anticipated to remain low," warns Bidwe.
In addition, there are few comprehensive studies that examine how nanomaterials interact with the environment. "With nanomaterials opening up a variety of possible applications, the lack of awareness about their impact on the environment--and the possible treatment methods to deal with this--is likely to hinder market acceptance," Bidwe points out.
Nevertheless, thanks to its ability to redefine manufacturing processes and ensure value enhancement, nanotechnology has the potential to improve existing materials and create opportunities for fresh applications.
"Pioneering developments in fundamental nanotechnology and innovative techniques are improving the ability to fabricate materials and incorporate them into devices," says Bidwe. "The emerging field of nanotechnology is moving out of laboratories toward real-world applications."
Many different industries are experimenting with nanotechnology to help them produce cost-effective products that exceed market demands. "Nanomaterials have opened the gateway for an exciting array of applications," explains Bidwe. "Some of the [health care] possibilities include imaging agents that can identify cancer cells and treat them prior to their spreading; targeted delivery systems that can kill cancer cells while leaving the healthy tissue unharmed; and a fingernail-sized electronic device [with] the capacity to store several gigabytes of data."
In the electronics industry, nanotechnology-based sensors have the potential to replace traditional sensors. And, with current semiconductor fabrication techniques reaching their limit, new techniques based on nanotechnology are evolving. With these fabrication methods, it is possible to have higher-speed processors, in addition to faster and higher density memories in extremely small form factors.
"Though these applications seem straight out of a science fiction movie, they are plausible," claims Bidwe. "Many companies have already introduced such products in the market and others are on the verge of commercialization."