History has defined human evolution based on materials. The stone age, the bronze age, the iron age and more recently the semiconductor age. It appears that we might be entering a new age: the nanomaterials age.
Nanomaterials are materials that are truly tiny in scale – materials that are of the order of one billionth of a metre in size. For perspective, such materials are 10 – 100 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. At these dimensions the behaviours of some materials changes drastically, resulting in materials which have interesting electrical, mechanical and chemical properties.
Video discussing the possibilities for carbon nanotubes, one of a large
number of new and exciting nanomaterials under development.
The most famous of all nanomaterials is the carbon nanotube. The nanotube, which is a sheet of carbon similar to that in graphite but rolled into a tube, is likely the strongest material known to man. Moreover, carbon nanotubes conduct electricity very well. Clearly, such properties are very exciting.
There are, however, difficulties. While the properties noted above are found for single nanotubes, it is very difficult to combine many nanotubes together to form engineering structures. Even objects as simple as a thread or wire are very difficult to make while maintaining the properties of the individual tubes. This is the realm of the materials engineer. Materials engineers at UBC are working to devise new and innovative processing paths for making nanomaterials into useful forms. Moreover, materials engineers are actively working with scientists to develop the next generation of such materials.