Nanomaterials (nanocrystalline materials) are materials possessing grain sizes on the order of a billionth of a meter. They manifest extremely fascinating and useful properties, which can be exploited for a variety of structural and non-structural applications.
Since nanomaterials possess unique, beneficial chemical, physical, and mechanical properties, they can be used for a wide variety of applications. These applications include, but are not limited to, the following:
Next-Generation Computer Chips
The microelectronics industry has been emphasising miniaturisation, whereby the circuits, such as transistors, resistors, and capacitors, are reduced in size. By achieving a significant reduction in their size, the microprocessors, which contain these components, can run much faster, thereby enabling computations at far greater speeds. However, there are several technological impediments to these advancements, including lack of the ultrafine precursors to manufacture these components; poor dissipation of tremendous amount of heat generated by these microprocessors due to faster speeds; short mean time to failures (poor reliability), etc. Nanomaterials help the industry break these barriers down by providing the manufacturers with nanocrystalline starting materials, ultra-high purity materials, materials with better thermal conductivity, and longer-lasting, durable interconnections (connections between various components in the microprocessors).
Kinetic Energy (KE) Penetrators with Enhanced Lethality
The Department of Defense (DoD) is currently using depleted-uranium (DU) projectiles (penetrators) for its lethality against hardened targets and enemy armoured vehicles. However, DU has residual radioactivity, and hence, it is toxic (carcinogenic), explosive, and lethal to the personnel who use them. However, some of the important reasons for the continued use of DU penetrators are that they possess a unique self-sharpening mechanism on impact with a target, and the lack of suitable non-explosive, non-hazardous replacement for DU. Nanocrystalline tungsten heavy alloys lend themselves to such a self-sharpening mechanisms because of their unique deformation characteristics, such as grain-boundary sliding. Hence, nanocrystalline tungsten heavy alloys and composites are being evaluated as potential candidates to replace DU penetrators.
Better Insulation Materials
Nanocrystalline materials synthesised by the sol-gel technique result in foam like structures called "aerogels." These aerogels are porous and extremely lightweight; yet, they can loads equivalent to 100 times their weight. Aerogels are composed of three-dimensional, continuous networks of particles with air (or any other fluid, such as a gas) trapped at their interstices. Since they are porous and air is trapped at the interstices, aerogels are currently being used for insulation in offices, homes, etc. By using aerogels for insulation, heating and cooling bills are drastically reduced, thereby saving power and reducing the attendant environmental pollution. They are also being used as materials for "smart " windows, which darken when the sun is too bright (just as in changeable lenses in prescription spectacles and sunglasses) and they lighten themselves, when the sun is not shining too brightly.
Phosphors for High-Definition TV
The resolution of a television, or a monitor, depends greatly on the size of the pixel. These pixels are essentially made of materials called "phosphors," which glow when struck by a stream of electrons inside the cathode ray tube (CRT). The resolution improves with a reduction in the size of the pixel, or the phosphors. Nanocrystalline zinc selenide, zinc sulfide, cadmium sulfide, and lead telluride synthesised by the sol-gel techniques are candidates for improving the resolution of monitors. The use of nanophosphors is envisioned to reduce the cost of these displays so as to render high-definition televisions (HDTVs) and personal computers affordable to be purchased by an average household in the U. S.
Low-Cost Flat-Panel Displays
Flat-panel displays represent a huge market in the laptop (portable) computers industry. However, Japan is leading this market, primarily because of its research and development efforts on the materials for such displays. By synthesising nanocrystalline phosphors, the resolution of these display devices can be greatly enhanced, and the manufacturing costs can be significantly reduced. Also, the flat-panel displays constructed out of nanomaterials possess much higher brightness and contrast than the conventional ones owing to their enhanced electrical and magnetic properties.
Tougher and Harder Cutting Tools
Cutting tools made of nanocrystalline materials, such as tungsten carbide, tantalum carbide, and titanium carbide, are much harder, much more wear-resistant, erosion-resistant, and last longer than their conventional (large-grained) counterparts. They also enable the manufacturer to machine various materials much faster, thereby increasing productivity and significantly reducing manufacturing costs. Also, for the miniaturisation of microelectronic circuits, the industry needs microdrills (drill bits with diameter less than the thickness of an average human hair or 100 µm) with enhanced edge retention and far better wear resistance. Since nanocrystalline carbides are much stronger, harder, and wear-resistant, they are currently being used in these microdrills.
Elimination of Pollutants
Nanocrystalline materials possess extremely large grain boundaries relative to their grain size. Hence, nanomaterials are very active in terms of their of chemical, physical, and mechanical properties. Due to their enhanced chemical activity, nanomaterials can be used as catalysts to react with such noxious and toxic gases as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide in automobile catalytic converters and power generation equipment to prevent environmental pollution arising from burning gasoline and coal.
High Energy Density Batteries
Conventional and rechargeable batteries are used in almost all applications that require electric power. These applications include automobiles, laptop computers, electric vehicles, next-generation electric vehicles (NGEV) to reduce environmental pollution, personal stereos, cellular phones, cordless phones, toys, and watches. The energy density (storage capacity) of these batteries is quite low requiring frequent recharging. The life of conventional and rechargeable batteries is also low. Nanocrystalline materials synthesised by sol-gel techniques are candidates for separator plates in batteries because of their foam-like (aerogel) structure, which can hold considerably more energy than their conventional counterparts. Furthermore, nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries made of nanocrystalline nickel and metal hydrides are envisioned to require far less frequent recharging and to last much longer because of their large grain boundary (surface) area and enhanced physical, chemical, and mechanical properties.
The strength of a magnet is measured in terms of coercivity and saturation magnetisation values. These values increase with a decrease in the grain size and an increase in the specific surface area (surface area per unit volume of the grains) of the grains. It has been shown that magnets made of nanocrystalline yttrium-samarium-cobalt grains possess very unusual magnetic properties due to their extremely large surface area. Typical applications for these high-power rare-earth magnets include quieter submarines, automobile alternators, land-based power generators, motors for ships, ultra-sensitive analytical instruments, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in medical diagnostics.
Sensors employ their sensitivity to the changes in various parameters they are designed to measure. The measured parameters include electrical resistivity, chemical activity, magnetic permeability, thermal conductivity, and capacitance. All of these parameters depend greatly on the microstructure (grain size) of the materials employed in the sensors. A change in the sensor’s environment is manifested by the sensor material’s chemical, physical, or mechanical characteristics, which is exploited for detection. For instance, a carbon monoxide sensor made of zirconium oxide (zirconia) uses its chemical stability to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. In the event of carbon monoxide’s presence, the oxygen atoms in zirconium oxide react with the carbon in carbon monoxide to partially reduce zirconium oxide. This reaction triggers a change in the sensor’s characteristics, such as conductivity (or resistivity) and capacitance. The rate and the extent of this reaction are greatly increased by a decrease in the grain size. Hence, sensors made nanocrystalline materials are extremely sensitive to the change in their environment. Typical applications for sensors made out of nanocrystalline materials are smoke detectors, ice detectors on aircraft wings, automobile engine performance sensor, etc.
Automobiles with Greater Fuel Efficiency
Currently, automobile engines waste considerable amounts of gasoline, thereby contributing to environmental pollution by not completely combusting the fuel. A conventional spark plug is not designed to burn the gasoline completely and efficiently. This problem is compounded by defective, or worn-out, spark plug electrodes. Since nanomaterials are stronger, harder, and much more wear-resistant and erosion-resistant, they are presently being envisioned to be used as spark plugs. These electrodes render the spark plugs longer-lasting and combust fuel far more efficiently and completely. A radically new spark plug design called the "railplug" is also in the prototype stages. This railplug uses the technology derived from the "railgun," which is a spin-off of the popular Star Wars defense program. However, these railplugs generate much more powerful sparks (with an energy density of approximately 1 kJ/mm2). Hence, conventional materials erode and corrode too soon and quite frequently to be of any practical use in automobiles. Nevertheless, railplugs made of nanomaterials last much longer even the conventional spark plugs. Also, automobiles waste significant amounts of energy by losing the thermal energy generated by the engine. This is especially true in the case of diesel engines. Hence, the engine cylinders (liners) are currently being envisioned to be coated with nanocrystalline ceramics, such as zirconia and alumina, so that they retain heat much more efficiently and result in complete and efficient combustion of the fuel.
Aerospace Components with Enhanced Performance Characteristics
Due to the risks involved in flying, aircraft manufacturers strive to make the aerospace components stronger, tougher, and last longer. One of the key properties required of the aircraft components is the fatigue strength, which decreases with the component’s age. By making the components out of stronger materials, the life of the aircraft is greatly increased. The fatigue strength increases with a reduction in the grain size of the material. Nanomaterials provide such a significant reduction in the grain size over conventional materials that the fatigue life is increased by an average of 200-300%. Furthermore, components made of nanomaterials are stronger and can operate at higher temperatures, aircrafts can fly faster and more efficiently (for the same amount of aviation fuel). In spacecrafts, elevated-temperature strength of the material is crucial because the components (such as rocket engines, thrusters, and vectoring nozzles) operate at much higher temperatures than aircrafts and higher speeds. Nanomaterials are perfect candidates for spacecraft applications, as well.
Better and Future Weapons Platforms
Conventional guns, such as cannons, 155 mm howitzers, and multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), utilise the chemical energy derived by igniting a charge of chemicals (gun powder). The maximum velocity at which the penetrator can be propelled is approximately 1.5-2.0 km/sec. On the other hand, electromagnetic launchers (EML guns), or railguns, use the electrical energy, and the concomitant magnetic field (energy), to propel the penetrators/projectiles at velocities up to 10 km/sec. This increase in velocity results in greater kinetic energy for the same penetrator mass. The greater the energy, the greater is the damage inflicted on the target. For this and other reasons, the DoD (especially, the U. S. Army) has conducted extensive research into the railguns. Since a railgun operates on electrical energy, the rails need to be very good conductors of electricity. Also, they need to be so strong and rigid that the railgun does not sag while firing and buckle under its own weight. The obvious choice for high electrical conductivity is copper. However, the railguns made out of copper wear out much too quickly due to the erosion of the rails by the hypervelocity projectiles and they lack high-temperature strength. The wear and erosion of copper rails necessitate inordinately frequent barrel replacements. In order to satisfy these requirements, a nanocrystalline composite material made of tungsten, copper, and titanium diboride is being evaluated as a potential candidate. This nanocomposite possesses the requisite electrical conductivity, adequate thermal conductivity, excellent high strength, high rigidity, hardness, and wear/erosion resistance. This results in longer-lasting, wear-resistant, and erosion-resistant railguns, which can be fired more frequently and often than their conventional counterparts.
Satellites are being used for both defence and civilian applications. These satellites utilise thruster rockets to remain in or change their orbits due to a variety of factors including the influence of gravitational forces exerted by the earth. Hence, these satellites are repositioned using these thrusters. The life of these satellites, to a large extent, is determined by the amount of fuel they can carry on board. In fact, more than 1/3 of the fuel carried aboard by the satellites is wasted by these repositioning thrusters due to incomplete and inefficient combustion of the fuel, such as hydrazine. The reason for the incomplete and inefficient combustion is that the onboard ignitors wear out quickly and cease to perform effectively. Nanomaterials, such as nanocrsytalline tungsten-titanium diboride-copper composite, are potential candidates for enhancing these ignitors’ life and performance characteristics.
Longer-Lasting Medical Implants
Currently, medical implants, such as orthopaedic implants and heart valves, are made of titanium and stainless steel alloys. These alloys are primarily used in humans because they are biocompatible, i.e., they do not adversely react with human tissue. In the case of orthopaedic implants (artificial bones for hip, etc.), these materials are relatively non-porous. For an implant to effectively mimic a natural human bone, the surrounding tissue must penetrate the implants, thereby affording the implant with the required strength. Since these materials are relatively impervious, human tissue does not penetrate the implants, thereby reducing their effectiveness. Furthermore, these metal alloys wear out quickly necessitating frequent, and often very expensive, surgeries. However, nanocrystalline zirconia (zirconium oxide) ceramic is hard, wear-resistant, corrosion-resistant (biological fluids are corrosive), and biocompatible. Nanoceramics can also be made porous into aerogels (aerogels can withstand up to 100 times their weight), if they are synthesized by sol-gel techniques. This results in far less frequent implant replacements, and hence, a significant reduction in surgical expenses. Nanocrystalline silicon carbide (SiC) is a candidate material for artificial heart valves primarily due to its low weight, high strength, extreme hardness, wear resistance, inertness (SiC does not react with biological fluids), and corrosion resistance.
Ductile, Machinable Ceramics
Ceramics, per se, are very hard, brittle, and hard to machine. These characteristics of ceramics have discouraged the potential users from exploiting their beneficial properties. However, with a reduction in grain size, these ceramics have increasingly been used. Zirconia, a hard, brittle ceramic, has even been rendered superplastic, i.e., it can be deformed to great lengths (up to 300% of its original length). However, these ceramics must possess nanocrystalline grains to be superplastic. In fact, nanocrystalline ceramics, such as silicon nitride (Si3N4) and silicon carbide (SiC), have been used in such automotive applications as high-strength springs, ball bearings, and valve lifters, because they possess good formability and machinabilty combined with excellent physical, chemical, and mechanical properties. They are also used as components in high-temperature furnaces. Nanocrystalline ceramics can be pressed and sintered into various shapes at significantly lower temperatures, whereas it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to press and sinter conventional ceramics even at high temperatures.
Large Electrochromic Display Devices
An electrochromic device consists of materials in which an optical absorption band can be introduced, or an existing band can be altered by the passage of current through the materials, or by the application of an electric field. Nanocrystalline materials, such as tungstic oxide (WO3.xH2O) gel, are used in very large electrochromic display devices. The reaction governing electrochromism (a reversible coloration process under the influence of an electric field) is the double-injection of ions (or protons, H+) and electrons, which combine with the nanocrystalline tungstic acid to form a tungsten bronze. These devices are primarily used in public billboards and ticker boards to convey information. Electrochromic devices are similar to liquid-crystal displays (LCD) commonly used in calculators and watches. However, electrochromic devices display information by changing colour when a voltage is applied. When the polarity is reversed, the colour is bleached. The resolution, brightness, and contrast of these devices greatly depend on the tungstic acid gel’s grain size. Hence, nanomaterials are being explored for this purpose.
From the above examples, it is quite evident that nanocrystalline materials, synthesised by the sol-gel technique, can be used in a wide variety of new, unique and existing applications. It is also very evident that nanomaterials outperform their conventional counterparts because of their superior chemical, physical, and mechanical properties and of their exceptional formability.