Learn about the nuances of nanotechnology

The director of the UW-P center explains what's ahead for the budding technology

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Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:00 am

In December 2008, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville unveiled the Nanotechnology Center for Collaborative Research and Development.

The Nanotechnology Center's mission "is to foster collaboration among UW System campuses that result in innovation in the science and engineering of nanotechnology."

The center is a joint initiative with the WiSys Technology Foundation. Jim Hamilton, a professor in the UW-P's Department of Chemistry and Engineering Physics and UW System distinguished professor, is the center's director.

The center -- located in Engineering Hall, a 108,500-square-foot, three-story facility dedicated in December 2008 -- is going strong and is on its way to accomplishing its mission.

Hamilton, founder of Graphene Solutions Inc. (now Xolve Inc.) discussed the center, its future and the future of nanotechnology in a recent question-and-answer session.

Question: How would you describe the facilities at UW-Platteville?

Answer: We have nanotechnology facilities that are comparable to the best in the world -- just as good as Madison and Illinois and Harvard and MIT even. We have facilities in the nanotechnology center and in the nanotechnology and microelectomechanical systems program that are just as good and all in one place here, so it's very convenient for our industry partners to come in and work with us because everything is right here and not all backed up and we can use it immediately.

Question: What's an easy example of nanotech uses?

Answer: One of the ultimate and yet-reached prizes of incorporating nanotechnology and graphene into composite materials is to make something like a T-shirt thickness bulletproof vest, where you have nanotubes of graphene, which are 350 times stronger than steel, incorporated into simple material. No one has figured out how to incorporate individual, strong layers yet.

Graphite itself is composed of graphene sheets. But graphene is weak enough that you can rub your fingers on it and make the sheets slide. It's not strong in that direction. It's strong when you come straight at it (perpendicularly).

You need to take an individual sheet and make a T-shirt made of polymer and graphene and then you can do that. That's what the technology is all about -- figuring out how to do that -- and no one's done that yet, but we have a better shot at doing that than anyone in the world right now.

Another very exciting application is in new modern solar cells. Solar cells are pretty expensive, made with expensive silicon and are brittle and inflexible, and so you'd like to be able to make them out of polymers -- so you can imagine them as a Visqueen sheet and layers of polymers and nanomaterials that looks like a tarp, but it's a solar cell.

We're working on that as well, and graphene may play a big role because you can put a flexible conductor on there, the light will shine through, and then the graphene carries away the electrons to charge batteries or do whatever you want with that.

What we have done here at UW-Platteville is a process where you can squirt the liquid graphene on a surface in a coating and eliminate the need to have lots and lots of little wires on top of solar cells to carry the electrons away, and I think that's a really exciting development that can have a big impact on society.

Question: What do you see for the future of graphene, and more broadly, nanotechnology as a whole?

Answer: Let's start with nanotechnology as a whole. Nanotechnology is really exciting because what's happened is people have discovered that there is a periodic table inside the periodic table.

Within nano scale materials, there has been discovered a whole range of new properties that could lead to new materials, new devices, new solar cells -- things like that. This technology is going to impact everything from medicine to alternative energy.

One of the stars of nanotechnology is graphene. The folks that discovered that just received the Nobel Prize in 2010. What's exciting about graphene is that no one knew that individual sheets of carbon -- one atom thin -- were stable and that these individual sheets have 1,000 times the conductivity of copper, 350 times the strength of steel and, if you can take these sheets and use them individually in a composite material, you can make better tennis racquets, fighter planes and speakers -- better anything if you can do that.

So graphene is going to play an important role in the future of electronics and practical materials. People don't really know where it's going to work, but we have to develop the technology to use it and figure out where it's going to be most important. In graphene, the electrons travel 100 times faster than in silicon and they have the thermal conductivity of a diamond so it takes heat away.

Over the next 10 years or so, if the scientific community can develop the technology to convert Pentium chips into carbon-based and graphene-based devices, then you can make them 100 times faster and 100 times smaller than they are now just by figuring out how to use this. We're a long way from that, but it's possible.

Question: How are you going to take things from the lab and put that into a cellphone? What's going to happen or what's going to make that possible for this technology to show up in my phone or TV?

Answer: That's a good question, and I think the answer is that the key to the performance of these regular materials in a cellphone or battery or composite material has to do with their surface area. If you take a battery and you take the same materials of today and make them nano materials, you increase the surface area, which means you increase the energy density that you store in there.

Sometimes you can increase the speed in which you conduct the energy out of them. And so what that means is that you can make better batteries and better capacitors.

Nanotechnology is going to make materials in all of these fields better, faster, stronger and last longer. And that's just by implementing nanotechnology into all of the existing fields.

Figuring out how to put nano particles into polymers so that they make them super strong -- kind of like carbon fiber on steroids, which is what carbon nanotubes are -- and figure out how to incorporate them in there.

Almost every cellphone and liquid crystal display -- every calculator, cellphone and computer has a coating of metal oxide on it -- has indium oxide that's a transparent conductor, allowing electrons to travel but still has the light come through.

The world is running out of indium and a lot of the applications are replacements for this coating. The key to the entire field of materials is really what is called the Price Performance Ratio.

If something is really expensive and really good, you can use it, but nanotechnology and nanotubes have been so expensive that they haven't really been implemented and the technology hasn't quite worked out. We've solved both of these problems so that we can have very high-performance materials at a low cost being incorporated into things like cellphones.

Question: What do you see in the distant future?

Answer: They call nanotechnology the new industrial revolution. When you think about the overall impact of the industrial revolution and the impact that Henry Ford and others had on our society, it's really a dramatic statement. That, by the way, is not something I made up; it is out in the literature and newspapers.

Nanotechnology is going to make many aspects of our lives and the products that we use better, simpler, cheaper and stronger. It will enable new fields in medicine; cellular scaffolding to grow new ears and kidneys will be based on a scaffold that will be developed from a nanotechnology-enhanced polymer matrices that cells can grow on.

The impact on battery and energy storage will be dramatic. Even now, we're seeing 10 to 100 times the reduction in size of batteries and energy storage materials. It comes along part and parcel with taking advantage of alternative energies.

The issue with alternative energy, which is very important to the future of the planet and non-oil-based technologies, is that there is a lot of it around, but it's not there when you need it.

There is no sunshine at night or wind when it's calm, so we need to be able to store that energy effectively, and that's where nanotechnology will step in. They now have truck-sized batteries that store energy from windmills but they are very inefficient.

Question: What current technologies use nanotech?

Answer: There are quite a lot of technologies out right now that are nanotechnology enhanced, and that brings up another issue of safety and the regulatory environment that nanotechnology is going into.

There haven't been any really game-changing technologies that have come from nanotechnology yet, just little step enhancements like better tennis balls and sunscreens that aren't white but colorless and still block the sun.

There are better batteries for rechargeable drills, for example, that have nanotechnology in them, but we are very much at the infancy of nanotechnology. There are quite a lot of products in an inventory kept by the Woodrow Wilson Institute with some 1,000 nanotechnology-enhanced products, and though a lot of it is just hype, some of it is good.

The real breakthroughs are yet to come.

Ian Clark contributed

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