Many people think that the applications of nanotechnology are limited to the technology sector. However, what many people don’t realise that nanotechnology is currently impacting everyday objects. The balance is also currently spilt. There are many areas where there is a huge potential, and it just needs a small push to make it a commercially viable option. On the other hand, there are areas where nanotechnology is currently being used and you may not even know it, and there are areas which are still confined to academia but could become a reality in the future. Here, we look at a few key areas where nanotechnology is likely to make a mark in the future (if it isn’t already doing so).
This is perhaps one of the more obvious applications. There’s been a lot of coverage about how 2D materials, such as graphene, are going to help make future touchscreens flexible. However, it is not just graphene that could bring benefits to this area.
Touch screens are ubiquitous nowadays, from phones, to tablets, laptop screens, watches and interactive whiteboards, to name a few. The presence of touch screens is only going to increase as materials become available that can produce a more sensitive response to the user. The ability to make touch screens flexible will also enhance the fields of wearable electronics/wearable technology.
Graphene is seen as one of the front-runners for flexible touch screens, because of its optical transparency and flexibility, but much will depend on the ability to consistently produce high-quality graphene (given the high-tech applications it would be used in). However, there was also a recent report that carbon nanotubes could be coming back, and by aligning them in specific orientations, they could produce a more responsive touch screen. This is in addition to the various other thin-film materials out there today.
Graphene has recently made it into various items of clothing. Whilst many areas mentioned here are still finding their way from the academic laboratory to the commercial sector, graphene-incorporated clothing is already here. Currently available clothing that uses graphene include t-shirts and shoes.
Deewear have created a line of sportswear that use graphene within the fibrous make up of the garment to make them more flexible (i.e. supporting for sports), durable, thermoregulating and lightweight. This year has also seen the official release of graphene-enhanced running shoes from Inov-8. The incorporation of graphene has been shown to produce a running shoe with a much higher durability, stretchiness and grip (50% improvement in all three departments), all of which are highly beneficial for the intended athletic and hiking applications.
There is also a large focus to commercially realise nano-inspired sensors into clothing. Various thin materials have been touted as wearable and flexible sensors that can monitor different aspects of the body whilst worn. This has applications for both health and lifestyle monitoring. Flexible sensors can already be made into clothing, but they require built-in electrical circuits, and a way of harvesting power (such as residual heat energy) from the body, to keep them running and monitoring. There is a big drive currently to produce more efficient conduits, so the field on e-textiles is one that is going to grow in the near future.
Batteries are perhaps the most useful area amongst those mentioned here, just because of the sheer number of devices, applications and areas of human life that they are used in. This is something that is going to take a while from a commercially-viable perspective, just because of the vast number of regulatory requirements, safety requirements and tests that are required to ensure that a new material is fit for use in batteries (especially for high-tech and energy intensive applications). Out of all the batteries used today, if nanotechnology is going to make its mark on the battery sector, it will be within the rechargeable Li-ion sector.
However, research coming out of academia looks promising. Everything from sheets of graphene, graphene balls, buckypaper, carbon nanotubes, carbon paper, carbon nanoscrolls, fullerenes, silver nanowires and various lithium-based thin films (this is not an exhaustive list) have been used as electrodes (or as part of an electrode matrix). Many of these electrodes produced are known to store a larger amount of charge, have more efficient cycling rates and greater overall efficiencies compared to current graphitic based electrodes. However, there are many unknowns regarding long-term safety.
The higher cost of using these nanomaterials, the inability to produce large volumes of the more complex architecture materials, and the requirement for the nanomaterial producer to pay for a significant amount of testing to be done before they will be considered for commercial use, has held many nanomaterials back from being widely used in batteries.
However, there are a couple of areas where nanomaterial-based batteries could have an impact and cause a shift in the market. These are in flexible batteries and rapid-charging batteries. There has been no answer from other classes of materials and nanotechnology could offer a solution to these concepts. Flexible 2D materials, such as graphene, have been touted for use in flexible electrodes because of its high strength, flexibility, optical transparency and electrical conductivity. However, issues with standards and graphene quality in the supply chain will have to be remedied before they are realised at commercial levels.
The area of rapid charging is an open field and there are potential candidates across various material classes, one of which has been the recent (academic) development of niobium tungsten dioxide nanomaterials. However, at this stage, there is still a lot of work to be done to convince industry that the advances in charging rates are worth the extra material cost (as this cost will undoubtedly be transferred to the consumer, which could potentially impact sales). So, until a cost-effective material comes along with superior charging (and safe charging) properties, the public may have to make do with incremental advances in the charging rate of devices.
Written by Liam Critchley