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Special Report - Advanced Nanoscale Materials: Putting Science at Your Fingertips

From cosmetics to hydrogen storage—nanoscale materials push the frontier

Suresh Baskaran develops new projects in advanced materials and manufacturing technology. This includes materials and manufacturing technology for new applications in electronics, photonics, energy conversion, vehicular structures, sensors and emissions control. Baskaran also leads PNNL's Hydrogen Science and Technology Initiative, which is positioning PNNL to address technical challenges related to hydrogen production, storage, utilization and safety. Paul Burrows manages PNNL's Nanoscience and Technology Initiative. The initiative generates new business primarily within PNNL's Department of Energy portfolio. It funds new research projects and seeds new ideas that are not funded elsewhere. Baskaran and Burrows discuss advanced nanoscale materials work that is taking place across the Laboratory.

How does PNNL's advanced materials research relate to the Nanoscience Initiative?

Baskaran: There's a need for basic nanoscale materials research, but there also needs to be a link to applications. The Nanoscience Initiative is developing new materials that could lead to applications. At the same time, we engage with many industry partners and the DOE to understand what problems need to be solved. We build new programs in advanced materials to address these problems, and many of them use information developed within the Nanoscience Initiative.

Burrows: My primary mandate in the Nanoscience Initiative is to develop a base of science. I believe that fundamental science also can be applications-driven. So as part of the initiative, we seek applications that fit DOE mission needs and then we look back to see what science should be conducted to fulfill those needs. Suresh and I are complementary. We expect to funnel our fundamental science into applications, but we also look for a pull from the applications end.

What are the challenges involved with working with advanced nanoscale materials?

Baskaran: One important challenge is that nanoscale materials are hard to handle and difficult to keep stable in processing and application environments. Our challenge is designing stable, durable materials that can be scaled up and manufactured in the form of thin films, bulk powders or bulk solids. From an applications perspective, our ability to scale up reliable materials will determine whether industry will support the development of nanoscale materials for specific applications. We also need to understand the science because without that we cannot manipulate the nanoscale building blocks into engineered nanoscale systems.

Burrows: What Suresh described is nanotechnology, the application of the science. As I see it, the primary scientific challenge is how to characterize a nanoparticle. Characterizing nanoparticles is difficult, yet it's important to understand their behavior for bottom-up design, which is creating nanoscale materials from molecular components as opposed to taking a bulk material and reducing it to nanoscale size. If you make a nanoparticle out of silicon, it no longer behaves like bulk silicon. Its behavior depends on the size, shape and environment of the nanoparticle. If it's long and skinny, it will chemically behave differently than if it's round or square or cubic. That's because you're exposing different crystal planes of the nanoparticle to the environment. There also will be the chemical functionality of the surface; generally, a material's surface characteristics will be different from its bulk characteristics and nanoparticles are almost all surface. Nanoparticles also tend to clump together and form aggregates. So you need to know the material's chemical composition, size, shape and state of aggregation before it is fully characterized.

Why is PNNL good at working with nanoscale materials?

Baskaran: We have unique capabilities in synthesis and characterization. We also have the right mix of people—material scientists, chemists, biologists and people who specialize in certain types of instrumentation and analytical techniques. Bringing these people together in a national laboratory environment—where we are all driven by DOE missions in science, energy, national security or environmental technology fosters great innovation in nanoscience and technology.

Burrows: PNNL is an intrinsically interdisciplinary organization, which is important because in nanoscience, everything is at the interfaces. The nanoparticle is basically all interfaces or surface and the work is at the interfaces of the disciplines. When you work with nanoscale materials, you're basically working at the molecular level and chemistry starts to overlap with electronics, physics, engineering and even biology. So all these disciplines really start to merge at the nanoscale. Having an organization that's conducting science along interdisciplinary lines is a real benefit. We also have a state-of-the-art facility for examining surfaces and interfaces at EMSL (Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory).

What are the business challenges involved with working with advanced nanoscale materials?

Baskaran: We need to identify how nanoscale materials can enable new technology and thus change the product mix within a business, whether it's in the automotive industry, the electronics industry or power generation. We must identify the right business opportunities, determine how nanoscience and nanotechnology can be important, and structure our work to address those challenges.

There are issues that are important to DOE as well as to industry that can be addressed with breakthroughs in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Many current technological challenges, such as hydrogen storage, involve nanoscale materials. Catalysts are really nano-catalysts and catalysts are being developed for diesel after-treatment, fuel processing and hydrogen production from biomass. Paul and his team are developing new materials for next- generation lighting systems, requiring manipulation of chemistry and structure at the nanoscale, and this is of interest to DOE as well as the lighting industry.

Burrows: Scale up to large volume manufacturing while maintaining control is an ongoing challenge to nanotechnology. There also is a business challenge in time horizon. Nanoscience is new and I think you have to make a commitment to study it for a long time. Nanotechnology isn't altogether new—the Romans did it by ball-milling gold into nanoparticles to pigment the glaze on their vases, although they didn't understand the science behind it. In fact, nanotechnology is everywhere. Two years ago Battelle staff surveyed the patent database by picking out the word "nanoscale" or "nanometer" or "nanostructure." Revlon had the highest volume of patents. When you put sunscreen on your nose now it's not white anymore, it's transparent because it's engineered oxide nanoparticles. But I think the more interesting potential for nanoscale materials, including nanobiology and catalysis for hydrogen production, lie at a 10- to 15-year time horizon. Driving this long-term vision of technology is an important mission for the national labs to take on.

What types of industry do we work with?

Baskaran: PNNL is working on problems and challenges brought to us from different industry sectors. We are very active in solid oxide fuel cells, and as we move to low temperature solid oxide fuel cells to improve durability and lower cost, industry will turn to us for new materials, electrolytes and electrodes that can operate at low temperatures and which require manipulation at the nanoscale. Similarly, industries involved in automotive emissions control recognize that we can help them understand what happens at the nanoscale on catalyst surfaces. The electronics industry comes to PNNL for many types of materials and process development needs, and because of our research in advanced lighting, we expect to interact more with the lighting industry.

Burrows: Nanoscience is such a broad field that many industries are interested in working with us, but industry often has a short-term focus whereas fundamental science requires a prolonged commitment. I think nanoscience is going to enable a broad range of applications in the future. So from the point of view of the Nanoscience and Technology Initiative, we aim to build a strong base of new science while working with managers to understand the needs of government and industry clients in the medium to long term. An important thing to keep in mind about nanotechnology is that, if successful, it will disappear at some point in the future. The average consumer will not notice nanotechnology! You won't go to the hardware store to buy nanoparticles, you'll go to buy a widget that is made better because it incorporates nanotechnology, just like today very few consumers go to the store to fetch silicon chips and yet almost every electrical appliance or automobile is stuff ed full of them. Instead of a nanoscience industry, all the existing industries are going to be improved and enabled for new applications with nanotechnology.

What are the benefits of partnering with industry and academia?

Burrows: While we have a lot of the facilities and tools at PNNL to address the problem, nanoscience is such a broad field that nobody has everything. Collaboration between the disciplines is the way that nanoscience will move forward, that is, physicists working with chemists and biologists on the same problem. Similarly, national labs have to work with industry and universities on the same problems; nobody has all the answers. We are building active collaborations with the University of Washington and the Oregon University System as well as hosting the Northwest Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Network (N4) to better coordinate nanoscience across the region.

Baskaran: We want to work with universities and other strategic partners who have complementary capabilities, so that we can bring all the right capabilities to bear on a problem. Industry offers a window to real problems that need to be solved so it's important for us to collaborate with industry to outline the research activities that could make an impact six or eight years from now.

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