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Materials, Devices, and Technologies

As science becomes more sophisticated it naturally enters the realm of what is arbitrarily labelled nanotechnology. The essence of nanotechnology is that as we scale things down they start to take on extremely novel properties. Nanoparticles (clusters at nanometre scale), for example, have very interesting properties and are proving extremely useful as catalysts and in other uses. If we ever do make nanobots, they will not be scaled down versions of contemporary robots. It is the same scaling effects that make nanodevices so special that prevent this. Nanoscaled devices will bear much stronger resemblance to nature's nanodevices: proteins, DNA, membranes etc. Supramolecular assemblies are a good example of this. One fundamental characteristic of nanotechnology is that nanodevices self-assemble. That is, they build themselves from the bottom up. Scanning probe microscopy is an important technique both for characterization and synthesis of nanomaterials. Atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes can be used to look at surfaces and to move atoms around. By designing different tips for these microscopes, they can be used for carving out structures on surfaces and to help guiding self-assembling structures. Atoms can be moved around on a surface with scanning probe microscopy techniques, but it is cumbersome, expensive and very time-consuming, and for these reasons it is quite simply not feasible to construct nanoscaled devices atom by atom. You don't want to assemble a billion transistors into a microchip by taking an hour to place each transistor, but these techniques can be used for things like helping guide self-assembling systems. One of the problems facing nanotechnology is how to assemble atoms and molecules into smart materials and working devices. Supramolecular chemistry is here a very important tool. Supramolecular chemistry is the chemistry beyond the molecule, and molecules are being designed to self-assemble into larger structures. In this case, biology is a place to find inspiration: cells and their pieces are made from self-assembling biopolymers such as proteins and protein complexes. One of the things being explored is synthesis of organic molecules by adding them to the ends of complementary DNA strands such as ----A and ----B, with molecules A and B attached to the end; when these are put together, the complementary DNA strands hydrogen bonds into a double helix, ====AB, and the DNA molecule can be removed to isolate the product AB. Natural or man-made particles or artifacts often have qualities and capabilities quite different from their macroscopic counterparts. Gold, for example, which is chemically inert at normal scales, can serve as a potent chemical catalyst at nanoscales. "Nanosize" powder particles (a few nanometers in diameter, also called nano-particles) are potentially important in ceramics, powder metallurgy, the achievement of uniform nanoporosity, and similar applications. The strong tendency of small particles to form clumps ("agglomerates") is a serious technological problem that impedes such applications. However, a few dispersants such as ammonium citrate (aqueous) and imidazoline or oleyl alcohol (nonaqueous) are promising additives for deagglomeration. (Those materials are discussed in "Organic Additives And Ceramic Processing," by D. J. Shanefield, Kluwer Academic Publ., Boston.) In October 2004, researchers at The University Of Manchester suceeded in forming a small piece of material only 1 atom thick called graphene. Robert Freitas has suggested that graphene might be used as a deposition surface for a diamandoid mechanosynthesis tool.