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Nanotechnology At the Frontier

Imagine a future . . .
in which new materials and devices are custom-designed at the molecular scale (“nanoengineered”) to create high-performance products, eradicate illnesses through subcellular control, and extend the limits of sustainable development through new approaches for water filtration, energy transformation and storage, and novel agricultural systems.

One of the most exciting topics in modern engineering research, nanotechnology gives us the ability to measure, control, and manipulate matter at the molecular level to create materials and devices with fundamentally new properties and functions. The systematic control of matter at the nanoscale has the potential to yield revolutionary technologies for electronics, medicine, aeronautics, the environment, manufacturing, and homeland security. Because nanotechnology is expected to bring profound economic and social impacts over the coming decade, leadership in nanotechnology development will be crucial to future U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

NSF plays a critical role in U.S. efforts to advance nanoscale science and engineering. The agency launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative and provides the largest contribution to this interagency effort, with primary responsibility for investments in fundamental research, education, and provision of research infrastructure. Within NSF, the Directorate for Engineering has lead responsibility for nanotechnology.

NSF-ENG supports a wide range of nanotechnology research, including efforts to develop near-term commercial applications through the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). For example, NanoScale Materials, Inc. has received SBIR support to devise commercial-scale methods for manufacturing NanoActive™ materials, a technology emerging from the Kansas State University lab of Kenneth Klabunde.

These advanced nanocrystalline materials have enhanced surface area and chemical reactivity, which gives them unparalleled ability to capture and neutralize a wide range of toxic chemicals as well as the capacity to destroy chemical warfare agents. The company recently introduced FAST-ACT™ (First Applied Sorbent Treatment Against Chemical Threats), a family of products designed to expand the capabilities of first responders, hazmat teams, and other emergency personnel in their efforts to counteract and clean up chemical hazards.


NSF-supported researchers Arun Majumdar and Peidong Yang of the University of California at Berkeley are using nanoscale engineering techniques to revive the decades-long, once elusive search for a material that is both superinsulating for heat and a strong conductor of electricity. They have developed a composite material featuring silicon-germanium nanowires embedded in plastic tape, which is attracting global interest for its potential role in enabling flexible, off-grid electric power generation using any available fuel.

Scanning electron micrograph of NanoActive™ Magnesium Oxide Plus. The large surface area of NanoActive™ materials gives them the ability to capture and destroy toxic chemicals. Just 25 grams of the material (a little less than 1 ounce) has the surface area of nearly three NFL football fields.

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