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From a materials development perspective, this is the important part: "The significance of this advance is this: if a material as expensive and rare as a diamond can be turned into a 'commodity,' then the applications of a variety of other materials, including everything from copper and ceramics to steel, can also be improved and utilized in different ways" (Uldrich, 2006, p. 17). From a pragmatic perspective, these developments mean that the equipment parts and components currently in use in the electric utility industry can be "retrofitted" using nanoengineered materials to make them more efficient and durable. "For instance," Uldrich reports, "high-temperature and sulfur-tolerant nanomaterials can be manufactured to withstand the harsh conditions of coal-fired plants; or nanoscale ceramics coatings can be employed to protect steel, nickel and other metallic components from corrosion. The end benefit is that electric utility providers can improve their operating margins by making existing equipment both last longer and operate at higher levels of efficiency" (p. 17). Therefore, by providing scientists with the ability to create "tailor-made" materials at the atomic and molecular level, nanoengineering techniques hold enormous promise for mankind in the future in ways that remain undetermined as yet. As Senator George Allen has emphasized, though, "The fields of nanoscience, nanoengineering, and nanotechnology have the real potential to transform almost every aspect of our lives and commerce" (2005, p. 55).

Disadvantages Associated with Nanotechnology.

While the advantages of nanoengineering are numerous and new applications continue to be discovered, there are some potential disadvantages associated with these trends that must be taken into account as well. In this regard, although the potential for nanotechnology is enormous, researchers in the field remain cautious about promising "too much, too soon" (National Nanotechnology Initiative, 2003). According to Karoly and Panis, "As with all technologies, considerable lags can occur between basic scientific discoveries and full-scale commercial applications. However, for the 10- to 15-year horizon, nanotechnology is almost certain to generate evolutionary technological change that enhances the capability of existing products and lowers costs" (p. 96).

Concomitantly, many of the innovations in nanotechnology also carry with them significant social, legal, and ethical implications, as well as national security concerns, that need to be addressed as the technologies continue to evolve. According to these authors, "If public acceptance of the new technologies is slow to materialize, their adoption and diffusion may not match the pace of discovery" (Karoly & Panis, 2004, p. 97). Likewise, as Lemley (2005) cautions, "Nanotechnology is at a speculative early stage; only a few nanotech inventions have so far actually made it into commercial products. But the expectations surrounding the field are immense, ranging from a utopia of free energy and abundant materials that will be one of the 'major drivers of economic growth' in the foreseeable future to fears of environmental catastrophe" (p. 602). Finally, as Gulson and Wong (2006) report, "Numerous publications and reports have expressed health and safety concerns about the production and use of nanoparticles, especially in areas of exposure monitoring, personal use, and environmental fate and transport.... By design, many of the nanotechnology products in development or in use contain a metal (or metalloid in the case of arsenic)" (p. 1486).

Current and Future Trends.

Spending on nanotechnology research has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, with a record $9.6 billion being spent in 2005 alone; the respective sources for this funding were as follows:

Table 1.

Sources of Nanotechnology Research Funding in 2005.

Source

Amount

Government funding

4.61 billion

Corporate funding

4.465 billion

Venture capital

508.5 million

Source: The Nanotech Report, 2006.

Figure 1. Sources of Nanotechnology Research Funding in 2005.

Source: Based on tabular data in the Nanotech Report, 2006 at p. 37.

In response to the explosive growth in research in nanotechnology and the emergence of new products and materials designed using nanoengineering techniques, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has created a new technology cross-reference system that is designed to track nanotechnology products (Lemley, 2005). To date, these patents include improvements in existing industries, particularly semiconductors, where ongoing efforts at miniaturization have resulted in increased processing speed and memory capacity of computer chips have resulted in the development of nanoscale components; other patents cover the commercial products that have been developed to date that have been facilitated by the behavior of materials at the nanoscale (e.g., a transparent sunblock for windows, stain-resistant coatings for clothing or carpeting, improved drug delivery systems, and nano-level filtration systems that can separate pollutants or bacteria from air or water) (Lemley, 2005). According to this author, "Still other patents -- arguably the most important ones -- cover the basic research and production tools or building blocks of nanotechnology, such as atomic force microscopes that can manipulate individual molecules or carbon nanotubes that can be used to build very light, extremely strong products -- anything from bulletproof shirts to space elevators" (p. 602). While the commercial potential for the latter category of technology currently remains unclear, Lemley suggests that continued research in this area is required in order to fuel downstream commercial products in the other two areas (2005).

Some definite trends can be discerned by a review of the patent applications for nanoengineered products to date as shown in Table 2 and Figure 2 below.

Table 2.

Published U.S. Patent Applications in Nanotechnology.

Year Patent Published

U.S. Applications

Source: Lemley, 2005, p. 602.

Figure 2. Published U.S. Patent Applications in Nanotechnology.

Source: Based on tabular data in Lemley, 2005 at p. 602.

Conclusion

The research showed that nanotechnology is the term used to describe the ability to precisely control matter at the atomic and molecular level to make new and better materials, products, and devices. The research also showed that the advantages of this ability are far ranging, but more importantly, more - and better - applications continue to be identified. The advantages of these techniques hold enormous promise for virtually every human-related enterprise in ways that remain unclear or unimaginable today, but this has certainly not stopped scientists and business leaders from investigating existing applications and continuing their efforts to refine these into new and improved materials. The current trends in patent applications for nanoengineered products suggests that more and more applications for these processes will continue to be identified in the future, and while the Internet has been cited as one of the most important innovations in recent years, the research was consistent in emphasizing that nanotechnology and nanoengineering hold even more promise for the health, welfare and economic well-being of all of mankind in the future. More importantly for the short-term, innovations in materials development using nanoengineering were shown to be able to help existing materials last longer and perform more efficiently, and these applications may represent the major efforts in nanoengineering in the foreseeable future.

References

Allen, G. (2005, Summer). The economic promise of nanotechnology: Congress must continue to support U.S. leadership in this field as a key component of future national prosperity. Issues in Science and Technology, 21(4), 55.

Anton, P.S., Silberglitt, R., & Schneider, J. (2001). The global technology revolution: Bio/nano/materials trends and their synergies with information technology by 2015. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Deal, W.F. III. (2002). Under the microscope: Nanotechnology, nanoscience, and nanoengeneering: Focus on the design and manipulation of individual atoms to produce tailor-made products and devices. The Technology Teacher, 62(1), 21-2.

Gulson, B., & Wong, H. (2006). Stable isotopic tracing - a way forward for nanotechnology. Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(10), 1486.

Karoly, L.A., & Panis, C.A. (2004). The 21st century at work: Forces shaping the future workforce and workplace in the United States. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.

Lemley, M.A. (2005). Patenting nanotechnology. Stanford Law Review, 58(2), 601-2.

National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), Nanotechnology workshop: From the laboratory to new commercial frontiers, final report. (2003, February 28). Rice University: Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology in Karoly & Panis at pp. 96-7.

Nanotech report, the (4th ed.). (2006). New York: Lux Research Inc.…[continue]

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