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Manufacturing at the Nanoscale

Manufacturing at the nanoscale is known as nanomanufacturing. Nanomanufacturing involves scaled-up, reliable, and cost-effective manufacturing of nanoscale materials, structures, devices, and systems. It also includes research, development, and integration of top-down processes and increasingly complex bottom-up or self-assembly processes.

16 gauge wire made from carbon nanotubes

A product of nanomanufacturing: A 16 gauge wire (above), approximately 1.3 millimeters in diameter, made from carbon nanotubes that were spun into thread. And the same wire on a 150 ply spool (below.) Courtesy of Nanocomp.

16 gauge wire made of carbon nanotubes shown on a spool

In more simple terms, nanomanufacturing leads to the production of improved materials and new products. As mentioned above, there are two basic approaches to nanomanufacturing, either top-down or bottom-up. Top-down fabrication reduces large pieces of materials all the way down to the nanoscale, like someone carving a model airplane out of a block of wood. This approach requires larger amounts of materials and can lead to waste if excess material is discarded. The bottom-up approach to nanomanufacturing creates products by building them up from atomic- and molecular-scale components, which can be time-consuming. Scientists are exploring the concept of placing certain molecular-scale components together that will spontaneously “self-assemble,” from the bottom up into ordered structures.

Within the top-down and bottom-up categories of nanomanufacturing, there are a growing number of new processes that enable nanomanufacturing. Among these are:

  • Chemical vapor deposition is a process in which chemicals react to produce very pure, high-performance films
  • Molecular beam epitaxy is one method for depositing highly controlled thin films
  • Atomic layer epitaxy is a process for depositing one-atom-thick layers on a surface
  • Dip pen lithography is a process in which the tip of an atomic force microscope is "dipped" into a chemical fluid and then used to "write" on a surface, like an old fashioned ink pen onto paper
  • Nanoimprint lithography is a process for creating nanoscale features by "stamping" or "printing" them onto a surface
  • Roll-to-roll processing is a high-volume process to produce nanoscale devices on a roll of ultrathin plastic or metal
  • Self-assembly describes the process in which a group of components come together to form an ordered structure without outside direction

Structures and properties of materials can be improved through these nanomanufacturing processes. Such nanomaterials can be stronger, lighter, more durable, water-repellent, anti-reflective, self-cleaning, ultraviolet- or infrared-resistant, antifog, antimicrobial, scratch-resistant, or electrically conductive, among other traits. Taking advantage of these properties, today's nanotechnology-enabled products range from baseball bats and tennis rackets to catalysts for refining crude oil and ultrasensitive detection and identification of biological and chemical toxins.  

transistor with 1 atom thick graphene layer

A high resolution image of a graphene transistor with a sheet of carbon only one atom thick. This high speed electronic device was created using nanoscale processes, and may one day be used for better computer chips.  (Courtesy of James Yardley, Columbia University Nanocenter, an NNI-sponsored NSEC)

Nanoscale transistors may someday lead to computers that are faster, more powerful, and more energy efficient than those used today. Nanotechnology also holds the potential to exponentially increase information storage capacity; soon your computer’s entire memory will be able to be stored on a single tiny chip. In the energy arena, nanotechnology will enable high-efficiency, low-cost batteries and solar cells.

For more products and applications that use nanotechnology, see Benefits & Applications or browse our database of the NNI's Major Achievements in Nanotechnology.

The NNI and Nanomanufacturing

Nanotechnology R&D, and the eventual nanomanufacturing of products, requires advanced and often very expensive equipment and facilities. In order to realize the potential of nanotechnology, NNI agencies are investing heavily in nanomanufacturing R&D and infrastructure. Over 90 NNI-funded centers and user facilities across the country provide researchers the facilities, equipment, and trained staff to develop nanotechnology applications and associated manufacturing processes.

The NNI helps drive the nanomanufacturing field by providing researchers and small businesses with access to this specialized equipment in order to maintain global U.S. competitiveness.

The President’s FY 2021 Budget requests over $1.7 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, including $39.5 million for nanomanufacturing.

The National Nanomanufacturing Network

The National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN) is an alliance of academic, government and industry partners that cooperate to advance nanomanufacturing strength in the U.S. The NNI and its member agencies actively participate in, support, and contribute to the NNN in its mission to advance nanomanufacturing.

The NNN functions as part electronic resource, part community of practice, and part network of experts working on the development of nanomanufacturing. The NNN fosters technology transition and exchange through a host of activities including reviews and archiving of emerging materials, processes, and areas of practice, strategic workshops and roadmap development. InterNano is the information arm of the NNN—a digital library resource of timely information on nanomanufacturing and a platform for collaboration, providing information archiving in areas of processes and tools, standards, reports, events, and environmental health and safety databases.