Nanomaterials are small — very small. These materials are so small that the unaided eye can’t see them, and manufacturers need specialized equipment to create them. Despite their size, they are having a big impact on manufacturing due to their unique properties and the benefits they can bring. Below, we’ll cover the basics — how are nanomaterials made, what are they and why are they essential to the manufacturing industry?
What Are Nanomaterials?
Nanomaterials are chemical substances and materials made up of very, very small individual units. Because of their small size, nanomaterials often have unique properties that make them valuable in manufacturing.
Definitions of what counts as a nanomaterial vary. Most follow the one set by the European Commission. They define nanomaterials as any material made up of individual units between 1 and 100 nanometers in length. To give you a better idea of how small that is, the width of one strand of hair is around 100,000 nanometers — 10,000 to 100,000 times bigger than any nanomaterial.
Nanomaterials can both be synthetic — like carbon nanotubes and foam-like aerogels — and naturally-occurring, like volcanic ash.
How Are Nanomaterials Made?
If you’re asking yourself, “How are nanomaterials made?” the answer is it depends. Generally, due to their small size and the precision needed to create them successfully, nanomaterials need specialized manufacturing processes.
There are two main production processes for nanomaterials. The first is top-down manufacturing. This method starts with large pieces of material. Chemical and physical processes break it down until the desired nanomaterial exists. Depending on the substance, this process can be relatively simple. Some metal nanoparticles, for example, can be ground down from microparticles with the right equipment.
The second group of manufacturing processes is bottom-up manufacturing. These methods begin with single atoms or molecules. They use chemical and physical processes to join them together into useful nanostructures. Bottom-up approaches typically create the most unique and powerful nanomaterials but are more complicated than top-down processes.
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Why Nanomaterials Are Important to Manufacturing
Nanomaterials provide a range of valuable characteristics and are often potent alternatives to existing materials. For example, nanoscopic aerogels, foam-like materials manufactured by the sol-gel process, act as powerful insulators because of their composition. The complex networks of particles with pockets of air and gas trapped inside provide layers of insulation.
Nanometals made from materials like tungsten and titanium can make tools with cutting implements stronger and more resistant to wear. Thus, manufacturers can use them longer.
Others can control pollution due to their high chemical reactivity compared to their size. They can react with pollutants, like nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, avoiding contamination in the combustion of fossil fuels.
Some nanomaterials have a wide range of uses. One of the best examples is carbon nanotubes. They have some extremely interesting properties — like better thermal conductivity than diamond, mechanical strength that outclasses steel and high electric conductivity. They’re also extremely light, which makes them an excellent alternative to metals.
These qualities are useful in lightweight bicycle frames, batteries and transistors. Their composition — like a mesh, made out of a single layer of carbon atoms joined together in rings — also make them great filters. This has manufacturers looking at carbon nanotubes for use in water purification systems.
Even when fragmented throughout another material, carbon nanotubes still provide some of their unique properties. It’s possible to reinforce weak materials — like the plastic filament used in 3D printing — with carbon nanotubes. This gives manufacturers a printing material that is both strong and lightweight.
Unfortunately, carbon nanotubes are difficult to manufacture at scale. Researchers are constantly experimenting with new manufacturing methods. We manufacture several thousand tons of carbon nanotubes around the world annually. However, production growth has been limited by challenges in both processes and in maintaining high levels of quality.
How Nanomaterials May Change Manufacturing
Nanomaterials, despite their small size, are extremely valuable to manufacturers. These materials can provide a range of unique and fascinating properties — like increased conductivity, extreme strength and insulation. Often, these materials are also lightweight, making them great alternatives to durable materials — mostly metals, like steel — that are often very heavy.
While nanomaterials can remain hard to fabricate at scale, many manufacturers are increasingly investing in research and development to take advantage of the properties that these materials offer.