Nanotechnology Brings Thinner and More Effective Insulation

Nanotechnology insulation has implications for the future. More than one company is already selling nanotechnology-enhanced insulation products (link) (link) (link). It is clear that nano-scale materials and tiny mechanical nano-structures can be used to give surfaces amazing properties and functions, just by painting them. What other applications are emerging or not yet developed?

Nanotechnology suggests increasingly sophisticated, functioning surfaces that can be easily applied.Spray-on, self-assembling nanotechnology surfaces might be applied in hard-to-reach or very small areas. The low weight of painted-on nanotech surfaces could make them useful in aeronautics, for example. Surfaces could be nano-textured to grip or repel other materials, and possibly to repel the other materials in a specific direction, opening up amazing possibilities for movement of objects or fluids in industrial applications.

The simplest nanotechnology relies on the shape of nano-objects to work. Consider the electric football game of the mid-20th century. Small football player figures had angled brushes on their feet which caused them to move in one direction when the game’s playing field was vibrated. Can a surface be created with such a capability? It would the vibration be natural molecular motion? Antibacterial surfaces might be like tiny tank traps or spiky little mine fields that would destroy bacteria on contact, so the surface would experience little or no degradation in functionality over time. Some plastics that kill bacteria already exist, I believe, but they may rely on chemical rather than strictly mechanical action (link) (link).

Can nano-materials be engineered to be more efficient sound absorbers?They are already being used as more efficient light absorbers in carbon nanotube-enhanced solar cells, and work on sound absorption is ongoing (link) (link). While there is little space or material at nano-scale in which to absorb mechanical energy, it will be important in specialized applications. One advantage may be that nanotechnology materials can be applied like paint in multiple coats to increase the effectiveness of light or other energy capture.

The military concept of exploding armor might inspire interesting nanotechnology applications. Some heavy military armor now employs a reactive means of defense (link). When it is contacted by a fast moving projectile it explodes back at the approaching mass to slow it at the instant of impact. While such armor can only respond once at a given site, it can still save a tank and its occupants from being destroyed in a battle. Can nanotechnology surfaces be engineered to change mechanically or chemically on contact, or to sense an approaching object and explode or otherwise react to it? On a recent cable TV documentary on ancient weapons (“Impossible Naval Engineering” episode of the History Channel’s Ancient Discoveries program) they showed the first sea mines, which were submerged structures made of levers, weights, and heavy beams. When a ship’s hull brushed against a lever extending upward to a few feet beneath the surface, it released a weight which caused a large arm tipped with a sharp metal point to swing up an pierce the hull of the ship. Can tiny nano-scale machines be engineered that would use a similar action to capture or somehow change or react to materials that touch them?

Nanotechnology will be involved in the solutions to many of our present and future challenges, and home-grown innovations are possible.  There is great potential in nanotechnology to better our lives and help us avoid major downturns and negative events in coming decades, and it is a wonderful playground for the imagination. One might think it is not an area where just anyone can experiment, but that is not true, as experimental nanotechnology kits have been available for high school level study for some time (link) (link).

We need more inventors, and promotion of innovation.  The early 20th century saying of “Invent a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” needs to be revived, though possibly in more modern terms.  I may be mistaken, but I think at least American culture has lost a lot of the spirit of creative innovation that was prevalent fifty years ago.  We have come to accept that important research is rarely carried out without huge budgets and outside of huge bureaucracies.  The basement inventor doesn’t appear to be as credible an image today, and that needs to change.  Those inventors were responsible for a great many of the technologies we enjoy today, and many of those people went on to do more sophisticated work in the large bureaucratic research organizations we take for granted now.  Children need to know that they can reach the cutting edge of knowledge in any of a wide number of fields even before they can vote, if they have the desire, and that the things they can achieve in doing so are gratifying and fun.  We need to revive the cultural knowledge that innovating is both fun and profitable, and provide the legal, cultural, and business environment that will make it so.  To do this, we each need to keep asking our government and corporate representatives to do the right things, to think long term, to actively promote innovation, and to work with us to create a sustainable global situation.  Doing so may require lifetimes, but the alternatives are grim.  Our descendants will appreciate the efforts we put out on their behalves.

As always, I welcome your comments.  – Tim


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