Nanotechnology is cutting edge technology. Every week advances are being made with the development of carbon nanotubes, the application of graphene, and the augmentation of nanomaterials.

Here is a sample of some of the most exciting nanotechnology advances for January 2019.

1. Nanosized Coating for Light Sensors, Solar Panels, and Biomolecular Detectors

A team of researchers from Singapore have developed a miniscule, inexpensive nanomaterial that has immediate applications in improving solar panels and detecting biomolecules.

By using silver particles that are only 100nm wide (about 1,000th the width of a human hair), the team have created a material that is super reactive to both visible and infrared light. Alternatively, the nanomaterial can be adjusted to be sensitive to minute traces of biomolecules.

The application process will be easy to upscale, unlike many nano-scale coatings which use techniques that involve strong acids or high temperatures. It can even be applied to flexible plastics.

As Robert Simpson, part of the research team and an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Design and Technology confirmed, "The material can be deposited at room temperature on a range of substrates without patterning or acids.” Adding that, “So far, we have deposited the material over 100 mm diameter plastic, Si and Silica samples. This single step large area fabrication method makes the material industrially relevant. Indeed, the nanostructures were grown using a modified technique that is commonly used to manufacture tinted films on large area window glass."

SEM images of fabricated nanoporous films with different silver contents

The results have now been published in the peer-reviewed journal ACS Applies Materials and Interfaces, where the team state how they have, “ … demonstrated a novel, large-scale and easy-to-fabricate technique to develop biosensing films that are silver−stibnite nanoporous structures. Since our wafer-scale nanostructured films are grown at room temperature without using solvents or corrosives, we were able to grow nanoporous plasmonic films on flexible plastic substrates. This means that inexpensive and flexible biosensors are realizable for point-of-care applications.” Adding that, “These prototype silver−stibnite flexible nanoporous plasmonic films are a strong candidate for commercial biosensing applications.”

2. Nanomaterial Woven into Clothing makes Wearable Tech

For many years, scientists have been trying to develop wearable electronic technology. Up until now, their success was limited mostly to attaching electronic circuitry to fabrics. However, invariably, the rigidity and weight of the devices caused damage to the fabric or the electronics, or the equipment became detached. What was needed was a technology that was truly part of the clothing, thus allowing freedom of movement, flexibility, and reduced weight.

This breakthrough has now been achieved with the use of nanotechnology.

Led by Monica Craciun, a professor from the University of Exeter Engineering department in England, an international team of scientists have coated fibres with light-weight, durable electronic components. These integrated electronic devices can then display images directly onto the textile.

As Professor Craciun notes, "For truly wearable electronic devices to be achieved, it is vital that the components are able to be incorporated within the material, and not simply added to it.”

The key to the discovery was the use of the nanomaterial graphene. Despite having a thickness of only a single atom, graphene is both strong and flexible, and able to conduct an electric current. Its tiny size also enables it to be coated onto the fibres of everyday clothing, creating a circuit without the use of bulky, heavy wires.

As the online scientific journal reports, “This new research used existing polypropylene fibres—typically used in a host of commercial applications in the textile industry—to attach the new, graphene-based electronic fibres to create touch-sensor and light-emitting devices.” Adding that, “The new technique means that the fabrics can incorporate truly wearable displays without the need for electrodes, wires or additional materials.”

A schematic diagram of the step-by-step process to produce touch-sensing devices on polypropylene textile fibre with a lithography process compatible with roll-to-roll manufacturing. Step a: conventional lithography and etching process. Step b: SEM pictures of the bent touch sensors are shown

Professor Saverio Russo, from the University of Exeter Physics department and co-author of the study, added: "The incorporation of electronic devices on fabrics is something that scientists have tried to produce for a number of years, and is a truly game-changing advancement for modern technology."

"The key to this new technique,” adds co-author Dr Ana Neves, “is that the textile fibres are flexible, comfortable and light, while being durable enough to cope with the demands of modern life."

Publishing their breakthrough in the journal Nature, the team state how they have, “pioneered graphene-enabled functional devices directly fabricated on textile fibres and for the very first time also attained [this] by weaving graphene electronic fibres in a fabric. Capacitive touch-sensors and light-emitting devices were produced using a novel roll to-roll-compatible patterning technique, opening new avenues for woven textile electronics. Finally, the demonstration of fabric-enabled pixels for displays and position sensitive functions is a gateway for novel electronic-skin, wearable electronic and smart textile applications.”

As well as applications in the fashion industry, the researchers envisage wearable electronics being used for medical purposes, such as monitoring heart rates or blood pressure, or more visible safety apparel. But beyond obvious uses, the long-sought-for development of wearable tech may lead to as yet unknown applications.

As Dr Elias Torres Alonso, a research scientist at Graphenea and a former Ph.D. student in Professor Craciun's team at Exeter observes, "This new research opens up the gateway for smart textiles to play a pivotal role in so many fields in the not-too-distant future. By weaving the graphene fibres into the fabric, we have created a new technique for the full integration of electronics into textiles. The only limits from now are really within our own imagination."

Photo credit: UniversityofExeter, SUDT, & MIT