Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nanotechnology - how to get into it, and where it's going

This post is in response to a comment here seeking some advice about nanotechnology, and is relatively brief.

What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is a vague, overly broad term. The most commonly accepted definition is something like "nanotechnology is any technology making use of the unique properties of matter structured on length scales smaller than 100 nm." By this definition the semiconductor industry has been doing nanotechnology for a long time now. The point is, in the last ten to twenty years, we've learned a lot about how to engineer materials and structure them in all three dimensions (under the right circumstances) on scales much smaller than 100 nm. This capability has a real chance of having a major impact on a large number of industries, from biomedical sensing and treatment to light strong structural composites to energy generation to waste remediation.

What should I study if I'm interested in nanotechnology? Nanoscale science and engineering is broad and interdisciplinary. The main avenues for getting into cutting edge work at these scales remain condensed matter physics, physical chemistry, and electrical engineering programs, though there are exceptionally good people working at the nanoscale in bio, bioengineering, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering programs as well. The best approach, in my opinion, is to get a first-rate education in one of these traditional disciplines and focus on the nano, if you want to make scientific or engineering research contributions. Broad nano overview programs right now are better suited to people who want to be scientifically literate for decision-making (e.g. managers or patent lawyers) rather than those who want to do the science and engineering.

Is there really substance behind the hype? Is nanotechnology actually going somewhere? There is definitely substance behind some of the hype. As a very recent example, this new paper in Nature Nanotechnology reports a way of making lithium ion battery electrodes from silicon nanowires. Because it's in nanowire form, the Si can take up huge amounts of Li without the resulting strain pulverizing the Si. Between that and the huge specific surface area of the nanowires, real gains over conventional batteries should be possible. Best of all, industrial scaleup of Si nanowire growth looks achievable.

That's just one example from the past week. There is an awful lot of silliness out there, too, however. We're not going to have nanorobots swimming through our bodies repairing our capillaries. We're not going to have self-reproducing nanomachines assembling rocket engines one atom at a time out of single-crystal diamond. Getting a real science or engineering education gives you the critical skills and knowledge to tell the difference between credible and incredible claims.

Is going into nanotechnology a stable career path relative to alternatives? Another reason to get a solid education in a traditional science or engineering discipline is that you shouldn't be limited to just "nano" stuff. Frankly, I think this would be far more useful in just about any career path (including law or medicine) than an undergrad degree in business. Still, there are no guarantees - learn to be flexible, learn to think critically, and learn to solve problems.


Anonymous said...

My perspective is that the "applied" nano research is really driven by the electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering nanotech people. No offense to the CM physicists and phys. chem. folks but their emphasis is way more blue-sky.

I think many materials science/engg. programs have also developed strengths both in the applied and blue-sky nanotech.

Doug Natelson said...

I was remiss in leaving out materials science departments.

I think it depends on what you mean by "applied". Certainly most of the electronic properties of nanotubes work that has been done is in physics departments. Much of the semiconductor nanowire work has its roots in chemistry departments (e.g., Lieber at Harvard, Yang at Berkeley).

Nanodoc said...

As a researcher in one of the large US Nanocenters, my feeling is that the "birth" of nanotechnology has happened without any major breakthrough. Rather, what we have witnessed in the last two decades is a collection of small incremental achievements in disparate fields such as synthetic chemistry and lithography, combined with the realization that something "big" is somehow one day going to emerge at the juncture of these fields. But it's still a fuzzy realization.

So listen to Doug's advice - get a solid degree in one of the "hard sciences", just like in the old days, because we're still doing 20th-century science.

Or study molecular biology - our cells are where nanotech truly happens.

magar said...

Hey Doug, I'm about to transfer to a school to major in EE, I'm very interested in the possibility of creating/utilizing new materials with nanotechnology.

I'm basically majoring in EE because if I decide not to pursue a PhD or Masters then I can get a pretty good job with just a bachelors (and I think I will like electronics/designing circuits -- but I haven't actually taken any EE classes yet). I am transferring from a school that only had chemistry and biology as choices for majors.

Will I still have a chance of possibly doing something with nanotechnology whether it's creating new materials or improving things with them? I know you mentioned EE in your post, do I have as good of a chance as a chemistry or physics major to be researching interesting things? I'm also considering either a physics minor or major in addition to my EE degree (probably minor because I don't think I could afford an extra semester in school).

JustAnotherPhysicsStudent said...

Hi! This question is related to anonymous #1's comment about the emphasis of the work being done by CM and phys. chem folks on nanotechnology being more blue-sky than work being done by various engineering departments.

So, is the work being done in CM by physicists more for the sake of the knowledge and its relation to other areas of physics itself? Or is it for the aim of ultimately having some form of application in nanotechnology? I guess a physicist would answer with the former but some of the theoretical work being done in mesoscopic physics seems to be ultimately for application in the engineering of some "nano" device.

Hence, it would be interesting to know what you guys think. I realise the answer may just depend on your subjective point of view ;p.

Nanodoc said...


- Create new nanomaterials as a EE? Not really... You won't synthesize materials from the ground up, that's really what chemists do. But thanks to the wonders of lithography, you effectively "create" nanoscale materials. You can learn lithography as a EE.

- Utilize nanomaterials as a EE? Yes, EE materials researchers are increasingly handling nanowires, nanotubes, etc. and trying to turn them into transistors or sensors.

EE is a very broad field. It sounds like you want to concentrate on studying electronic materials and devices. And a physics minor is a great idea: these two fields go hand in hand.

Doug Natelson said...

Magar - Nanodoc is right, though there are opportunities to develop some new materials in some EE departments. Dilute magnetic semiconductors, MBE growth of other semiconductor materials, organic semiconductor devices, etc. A mixed engineering/physics background can be very useful. I was a mech-e back in the wayward days of my youth.

Justanother - as you say, it depends on your point of view. Some of the projects in my lab are motivated entirely by a particular physics question that I want to answer. Others have some applications tied to them in a relatively realistic way. Personally, I like having a mix of both. I do think it's good to have a realistic sense of what technologies really are, though. We can make single-molecule transistors in my lab, but they're definitely not suitable for use as a technology at present, for a large number of reasons. However, it's still important to future technologies to understand the basic physics of conduction at these scales.

aklee237 said...

Dr. Natelson

Thanks for taking the time to write such an informative post during the holiday break. Your blog entry was really encouraging and helped separate hype from substance. Quite frankly this field is more appealing than the rat-race atmosphere you'll find at a business school.

Keep up the blogging and have a Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

To JustAnotherPhysicsStudent

The physics/chemistry researchers seem to focus more on obtaining properties and finding cool phenomena at small scales. The researchers in engineering spend considerable effort figuring out questions such as
(1) device packaging: can one build devices that work outside a tightly controlled lab-environment, and detect the cool phenomena without sophisticated (and expensive) instrumentation
(2) reliable, cheap mass-production.

Of course this is a very broad view and there are bound to be exceptions.

Anonymous #1

James Orman said...

We will have nanomachines in our bodies curing our illnesses. I'll make sure it happens. There's nothing silly about it either. People's lives are no joke.

nanodots said...

If you ask me, in a few years, nanotechnology will be a field of activity running billions of dollars. It's a good activity to invest in.

Up Start Interactive said...

I think many materials science/engg. programs have also developed strengths both in the applied and blue-sky nanotech.

preeti said...

nice article. use of nanotechnology increasing day by day, I am studying nanotechnology and reading various blogs, books. your blog is also good. slim mobile models are good example of nano technology.

Anonymous said...

I don't really care to learn about nanotechnology, I simply want to invest in it. I want to make money from it. Any tips where I should be investing?