“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.
That’s a very limited life.
Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
- Steve Jobs
The world is changing faster than ever and we must be equipped to handle a brave, new frontier. But how did we get here?
We been living a paradigm of something called, incremental technology. We’ve been trying to change 1% of the world at a time to be better. In 1400, the printing press was invented and that changed everything. Since then our mentality has been improving one step at a time, improving incrementally. From radio waves to wireless signals, we have innovated using connected devices to communicate with others across the world. Then, we found a way to digitally transfer images on video. These seem like big changes but there’s only one problem. It’s incremental. If you told someone 10 years ago that video chat existed they’d tell you to shut up and get out of your science fiction world. But it happened and everyone was shocked. Then came a point in time where everything changed…
The 80/20 rule: 80% of our tech is invented in one time frame, and the last 20% explodes at the same time. All the modern tech and internet was invented less than 25 years ago. We are living right in the middle of a monumental change in civilization and take it for granted. When something explodes in growth we call it exponential technology. If you think the technology we have right now is advanced, there is a new technology being developed that will blow your mind.
Nanotechnology and nano science, in layman terms, are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.
One of the exciting and challenging aspects of nanotechnology is the role that quantum mechanics plays in it. The rules of quantum mechanics are very different from classical physics, which means that the behavior of substances at the nanoscale can sometimes contradict common sense by behaving erratically and sporadically. You can’t walk up to a wall and immediately teleport to the other side of it, but at the nanoscale an electron can — it is called quantum tunneling or electron tunneling. Substances that are insulators in bulk form might become semiconductors when reduced to the nanoscale. Melting points can change due to an increase in surface area. Much of nanoscience requires an open-mind and a desire to learn from scratch.
New products incorporating nanotechnology are coming out every day. Wrinkle-resistant fabrics, deep-penetrating cosmetics, liquid crystal displays (LCD) and other conveniences using nanotechnology are on the market. Before long, we’ll see dozens of other products that take advantage of nanotechnology ranging from Intel microprocessors to bio-nanobatteries, capacitors only a few nanometers thick. While this is exciting, it’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as how nanotechnology may impact us in the future. Specifically in health sciences, scientists and doctors are using a revolutionary nanotechnology, nanosensors.
The Curious Case of a Nanosensor
In the early 1990’s, sensor technology was introduced in the medical field as a means to improve the health and safety of individuals, while proving cost-effective versus cumbersome machinery. Today, in 2018, scientists are using nanosensors to completely disrupt the medical industry. But what exactly is a nanosensor? Conveying information about a nanoparticle’s biological, chemical, or surgical sensory points to the macroscopic world is a nanosensor’s job. While predominately used in the medical field, nanosensors are also gateways to building other nanoproducts, such as computer chips that work at the nanoscale and nanorobots.
A critical goal of diagnostic medicine is to be able to diagnose medical problems as quickly as possible, enabling doctors to treat patients before any irreversible or chronic damage can occur. Researchers have already managed to use nanotechnology to: improve biological imaging, monitor the build-up of bacteria on implants, and effectively warn doctors when treatment is required before the health issue escalates. Thus, while it can be difficult to visualize just how small nanosensors are, the benefits that come with applying nanotechnology to medicine are much easier to see.
The inner working of nanosensors is quite a simple concept. Nanosensors work by monitoring electrical changes in the sensor materials. With a special sensation ability to detect information and data, their arrangement is similar to that of a regular sensor. Nanosensors work by calculating and measuring various changes in the: displacement, dislocations, concentration, volume, acceleration, pressure, and temperature of each cell in the living body. Many nanosensors are designed to differentiate between normal and abnormal cells such as sensors for detecting cancer in living body, molecular controllers to deliver medicines in the human body. By detecting macroscopic changes that appear from external interactions, nanosensors accurately identify specific cells or the parts of the body having any deficiency much faster than any doctor in the world.
How It’s Made: Nanosensor Edition
The standard process of making nanosensors involves nanofabrication. Electron beam lithography creates the formation of designed patterns on a set of masks and optical projection lithography for the reproduction of the next mask patterns at a high throughput level.
However, with innovation, nanotechnologists now use several ways to make nanosensors, including traditional and unconventional methods. Focused ion beam lithography, optical projection lithography, and top-down lithography are all examples of traditional processes, while soft-lithography and proximity probe lithography represent the creative paths researchers hope will inspire innovation.
Focused ion beam lithography is similar to other conventional nanofabrication methods but here magnetic lenses are replaced by electrostatic lenses because of the much heavier ion masses. The drawback of this type of lithography is its limited writing speed, due to the fact that the ion beam current density is 2 orders of magnitude smaller than that of the electron beams.
Soft-lithography is based on the use of an elastomeric stamp to ink a solid substrate with the help of molecular self-assembly. Soft-lithography has been applied to the fabrication of field effect transistors, magnetic structures and optical devices.
In 2012, for the first time, researchers made arrays of nanoelectromechanical sensors on a large scale in a semiconductor fabrication facility. This work demonstrates that these devices, which can detect chemicals at parts-per-billion concentrations, could lead to a mass spectrometer on a chip.
The nanoelectromechanical system, or NEMS, sensors are tiny silicon cantilevers, each just 800 nm wide and 2 µm long, that resemble diving boards. When a molecule lands on a sensor, the molecule decreases the lever’s vibrational frequency. As it vibrates less, the stress on the underlying silicon structure changes, causing its electrical resistance to change through a physical effect called piezoresistance. Consequently, researchers can easily detect these fluctuations. Hence, nanofabrication allows the production of nanostructures with minimal defects and homogeneous chemical composition.Furthermore, the top-down approach proves to be cost-effective and providers researchers the opportunity to manipulate the shape and size of the product.
Nanofabrication Solves Problems, But Has a Few of its Own as Well…
While nanofabrication has been one of the most important developments in laser processing over the last 10 years, the process has encountered many areas of concern.
First and foremost, nanofabrication requires an abundance of time to manufacture as the technology isn’t where it needs to be. Like many of our greatest innovations, nanofabrication is “avant-garde” and will require advances in nanotechnology to be made truly effective and efficient.
Dependent on your method of nanofabrication, there are issues that may arise. For “top down” nanofabrication, the tolls available are big and effectively limit the process. Furthermore, there is limitation that arises from the wavelength of light or tool. For “bottom up” nanofabrication, there is a limited number of tools to manipulate single molecules and atoms. Moreover, this method requires a compatible surface which makes the process in need of cumbersome equipment.
Cutting and subsequent precision is also a problem after nanofabrication. Nanotechnologists use standard lasers to cut materials and this can cause imperfections with the final products. Even the slightest laser mishap can have adverse effects on a nanosensor’s ability to function.
Regardless of how you go about nanofabrication, three problems of any disruptive technology is that: not everyone can access the technology, it can be expensive to operate, and there is a knowledge gap where not individuals will understand the technology’s inner workings. Nanofabrication is no different.
Looking to The Future
Every problem comes with the hunt for a subsequent solution and the issues of nanofabrication are no different.
Advances in lithographic techniques for decreasing lateral dimensions, deposition methods for decreasing vertical dimensions, and tailoring layer interfaces have been accompanied by the need for high-resolution methods of physical and chemical characterization. Each nanofabrication step requires characterization tools to optimize and qualify the process. Instrumentation that can deliver a broad range of information about the characteristics and quality of semiconductor materials and devices. Thus, it is absolutely crucial that the technology to create a more efficient and effective nanofabrication be developed to further progress in the field.
Research in fine cutting of nano material has intensified over the last couple of years. The high quality cutting in medical stent production demands improved laser cutting technology that can minimize the requirement for post-processing. This is where nanophotonic technology comes into play for precise cutting. Nanophotonics deals with metallic components that transport and focus light via surface plasmon polaritons. With nanophotonics, light can be squeezed into a small volume, being absorbed into small lasers. These lasers will various desirable properties for optical use including focusing light for cutting nano materials after the nanofabrication process. Consequently, nanotechnologists can, in theory, maximize their ability to eliminate errors.
Dr. Li Jiafang, from the Institute of Physics (IOP), Chinese Academy of Sciences, has recently formed an international team to apply kirigami techniques to advance 3D nanofabrication.
By utilizing the topography-guided stress equilibrium within nanofilm, versatile 3D shape transformations such as upward buckling, downward bending, complex rotation and twisting of nanostructures were precisely achieved. Jiafang’s team also developed a theoretical model to elucidate the dynamics during the nano-kirigami fabrication. This is of great significance since it allows researchers to design 3D nanogeometries based on desired optical functionalities. The concept can be extended to broad nanofabrication platforms and could lead to the realization of complex optical nanostructures for sensing, computation, nano-electromechanical systems or biomedical devices. Sparking a revolution in nanofabrication and its ideology.
The future of nanotechnology and nanosensors is extremely promising. While there may certain problem pertaining to the nanofabrication of products, you better believe passionate individuals are working tirelessly to solve every single issue.
My Personal Note and Further Reading
The most important tool is knowledge. A necessity when solving any problem is to gain as much perspective as possible and see the various ways the issue can be resolved. For nanofabrication and its complexity, we must approach problems the same way. Hence, it is absolutely necessary that younger individuals be exposed to the process of nanofabrication. Teaching children about nanotechnology and other exponential technologies we can foster passion and true purpose in life. With more passionate, determined people working on solving our biggest problems, we can not only gain fresh insight and work towards solving issues like accelerating the extensive nanofabrication process, but also innovate like never before.
The progress made in nanotechnology, specifically nanosensors, is simply mind-blowing. The collective efforts of scientists from the likes of Richard Feynman to world-renowned labs today is seriously admirable. Simply by reading these papers, they teach me not only the knowledge, but the attitude to scientific research — patience, optimism, and persistence.
If you are as excited as I am and love envisioning the future of nanotechnology and nanosensors, I would recommend the following readings:
- Technology Opportunity: Chemical Nanosensor
- Accelerating Advances in Science, Engineering, and Medicine through Nanoscience and Nanotechnology
- Nanotechnology- A Future Prospect in Recent Medicine
- Nanosensors and Nanomaterials for Monitoring Glucose in Diabetes
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