Nanotechnology: Small but Mighty

TEXT Peter Yeadon

Then I could say to one particular atom in me–call it atom No. 4320–“Go and be part of a rose for a while.” All the atoms could be sent off to become parts of different minerals, plants, and other substances. Then, if by just pressing a little button they could be called back together again, they would bring back their experiences while they were parts of those different substances, and I should have the benefit of the knowledge.

–Attributed to Thomas Edison by George Lathrop in Harper’s Magazine, No. 80, 1890.

During a recent gathering at the Center for Architecture in New York–which celebrated the work of six new practices from London–there was a discussion near the bar that gradually turned toward the escalating influence of nanotechnology on textiles, industrial design, and now architecture. An exhibition of student work from 16 regional schools was still hanging in the lower gallery at the Center, and the University of Pennsylvania featured a selection of Studio Balmond projects that focused on nanotechnology. “I’m still waiting for nanotech to appear in architecture,” said an expectant but skeptical archi-demic, “as, you know, as a technology for making structures.”

While her doubts might be have been tempered by the fact that the Penn studio was directed by Cecil Balmond, Deputy Chairman of Ove Arup and Partners and an engineer who has created some of the most innovative structures in the world, our colleague’s brief statement summarized two principal challenges for nanotech: raising public awareness of its capabilities, including an awareness amongst architects, and finding applications for its increasingly diverse research, including new applications in the construction industry.

Results from a national survey, released on September 25 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, indicate that only six percent of Americans have “heard a lot” about nanotechnology. Although nanotech products on the global market totalled roughly $50 billion last year–and one would be hard-pressed to find a university in the industrialized world that does not perform nanotech research–the survey found that 70 percent of adults have heard “just a little” or “nothing at all” about nanotechnology. “Even though the number of nanotechnology-enabled consumer products has more than doubled to over 500 products since last year, the ‘needle’ on public awareness of nanotechnology remains stuck at disappointingly low levels,” said David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center’s Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of this new technology area.”

Part of the problem lies in the word itself, nanotechnology, which has quickly become a convenient term for nanoscale science and engineering that occurs at the molecular level, and within a dimensional range of 1-100 nanometers. “Because nanotech research is dimensionally defined,” explains Dr. Robert Hurt, Director of Brown University’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, “it brings together researchers from a variety of fields that are working at the nanoscale, such as physics, chemistry, biology, materials science and engineering.” Instead of being thought of as a “technology” that has emerged from a particular field or industry, like biotechnology, nanotechnology needs to be understood as “technologies.” Shape-shifting materials, adhesives that mimic the performance of a gecko’s toe, windows that harvest solar energy, quantum computing, and molecular bombs that can seek and destroy cancer cells, are all examples of nanotechnology at work.

Nanotech researchers are principally concerned with the study and design of molecular and atomic phenomena, wherein they are capable of fundamentally altering the properties of matter, and our relationship to it. They understand that if we can control energy, then we can manipulate matter, as matter is a manifestation of energy, not unlike light and heat radiation. This is the primary nature of materials, and it has tremendous implications for architecture. As Christine Peterson, President of the Foresight Institute, reported to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, “the ultimate goal of nanotechnology is the complete control of the physical structure of matter, all the way down to the atomic level.” That is to say, if Louis Kahn were alive today, he might tell that brick what it wants to be, not ask it.

Given the excitement surrounding nanotechnology as a disruptive technology, it has been fascinating to witness its discreet integration into numerous environments and goods that have been invented over the past 15 years, some of which have been tracked by online databases such as Even though the construction sector has been rather slow to adopt and develop nanotech innovations, especially when compared with the design fields that are allied with architecture, nanotech is steadily infiltrating the built environment on two fronts: by optimizing and enhancing the performance of many existing technologies (e.g., smart materials, nanoscale modifications of cement, seismic dampening systems, and stronger, lighter structural composites with carbon nanotubes), and by offering a new class of material products that were not possible before nano-engineering (e.g., polymers that conduct electricity and harvest solar energy, biomimetic adhesives, self-analyzing and self-healing structures, anti-reflection coatings, super-insulants, and the ability to make any object a light source).

Although change has been slow, even seasoned practitioners are beginning to see the advantages of using nanomaterials in their projects. Richard Meier’s Dives in Misericordia church in Rome uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles in its cement to break down organic and inorganic air pollutants simply by reacting to sunlight. This divine intervention is, at the very least, an innovative way to offset emissions from the manufacture of cement. Similarly, nanotechnology plays a surprisingly subtle role in the new residential building that has risen at 40 Bond Street in New York, which is currently being advertised as a place where “Herzog & de Meuron Radically Reinvent the Cast Iron Building.” At 40 Bond, the green glass mullion caps have been treated with a new coating developed by DFI Nanotechnologies, which is a product of the next industrial revolution, not the last one. The two-stage process first smooths the coarse surface of glass, and then adds a hydrophobic layer to repel dirt and water, effectively reducing long-term costs associated with cleaning and maintaining the faade. Both the Jubilee Church in Rome and 40 Bond demonstrate how nanotechnology is being applied to architecture; it is through manufactured building products that are imbued with unique performance characteristics, and its entry has been unexpectedly discreet.

Unlike the top-down approach we use to make architecture, where even our state-of-the-art digital fabrication tools are a slightly more advanced means to cut, shape, or cast stock materials into building components and waste, nanomaterials can be self-assembled from the bottom up, atom by atom, and molecule by molecule (just like you and me). Like architecture, nanomaterials can also be constructed from the top down with a range of tools that position molecular building blocks to form mass, but the two methods, bottom-up and top-down, are usually paired so that they work together. One such technology, the electrohydrodynamic printer, shows great promise as it can produce a variety of nano-engineered materials at very fine resolution. The University of Illinois has shown that the tool can print DNA without damaging it, which might appear to be a minor achievement to those who are involved in making cities, but it is significant. If we can manufacture nanostructures with such precision, then we might also manufacture novel devices at the nanoscale, which in turn could build additional machines for the future of rap
id prototyping: nanofactories.

Aside from tackling problems in energy, health, security, defense and the environment, perhaps the most ambitious mission of nanotech researchers is the pursuit of molecular manufacturing, where molecular mills can create complete, finished products from a feedstock of elements. It seems fanciful, and about as far-fetched as heavier-than-air flying machines once were, but many recent developments already show how rapidly we are approaching the advent of nanorobotics. Rice University has created a nanocar, complete with its own molecular motor. The University of California has created single-molecule couriers that can walk along a copper surface, pick up molecules, and deliver them elsewhere. Molecular shuttles and elevators have been created, and Swiss researchers have created nanopropellers that could propel autonomous devices through fluids, like the flagella of bacteria. Scientists in Europe were also the first to use nanoscale machines to move an object that was visible to the naked eye, a drop of fluid, one millimetre up a 12-degree slope. And at NYU, just down the street, self-assembled arrays of DNA robotic arms have been programmed to build polymer materials by grabbing various molecular chains, moving into position, and fusing them together. So we don’t have to wait for nanotech to appear in architecture; it materialized some time ago and has already changed our relationship to materials and making.

Peter Yeadon is a partner at Decker Yeadon in New York. He is a member of the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation at Brown University and teaches multidisciplinary courses on smart material and nanotechnology at the Rhode Island School of Design.