Though maintaining atomic precision over large areas is incredibly difficult, some companies are getting there. GE Research started its nanotechnology program about 10 years ago. At that time, says principal scientist Jim Ruud, the company was focused on developing new materials with new properties. Now, he says, several of the company’s nanomaterials are ready for commercialization, and GE is focusing on manufacturing and processing. Incorporating some nanomaterials into products requires new processes; others can be integrated, with care, into existing processes.
“Ideally, you just tweak the existing system to make it better,” says Ruud. This worked for one of the nanotechnologies in the company’s portfolio, a superhydrophobic coating that sheds water very well and will improve the efficiency of steam-turbine blades. When investigating ways of making these coatings over large areas, the GE researchers found that they could use the same high-temperature spray process they use to make other coatings, just by making a few relatively simple changes.
In other cases, working with nanomaterials is not quite so simple. Take the case of a transparent ceramic armor that GE hopes will replace the heavy, thick glass-and-polymer armor currently used on the windows of military vehicles. The new material’s strength derives from the structure of the nanoparticles it’s made from. Ceramics have traditionally been made by sintering together microscale particles through a multistep process. The company had to adapt every step of this process to work with nanoscale powders, and it had to work with the powder manufacturer to redesign the starting material to fit the manufacturing constraints. “You have to start with a product in mind and develop the manufacturing process for that product,” Ruud says.
Nanotechnology also has the potential to improve today’s manufacturing systems by making prototyping and screening technologies less expensive, says Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University. Mirkin developed a technology called dip-pen nanolithography, which uses arrays of nanoscale tips to “paint” large numbers of nanoscale structures in parallel using molecular inks. One of the earliest uses of this method, which is being commercialized by the company NanoInk, is to quickly prototype devices that usually have to be made through expensive processes in off-site fabs. For example, the technology offers a speedy way to pattern the photolithography masks needed to make novel circuit designs. That makes it easier and less expensive to test more designs so that the best one can be identified faster.