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Latest Nanotechnology Signature Initiative Provides for Intriguing Concepts Addressing Critical Challenges

Written by: 
Jeff Morse, PhD

multiplexed sensor system
The recently announced Nanotechnology Signature Initiative (NSI), Nanotechnology for Sensors and Sensors for Nanotechnology: Improving and Protecting Health, Safety, and the Environment, is the fifth NSI to be launched by agencies of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Sensors incorporating nanostructures and nanomaterials have been under development for over 20 years now, and show the potential to provide significant societal impact through the deployment of inexpensive, simple to use, portable devices that can rapidly detect, identify, and quantify biological and chemical substances. Such sensors would ultimately impact consumer and military applications including medicine and healthcare, biological and chemical warfare threat detection, environmental monitoring, pharmaceuticals, food, and agriculture. Looking through the details of the this NSI, the descriptions of the thrusts and goals provide for some intriguing concepts, and address some critical challenges and barriers to the successful deployment, and ultimately commercialization, of nanosensor technologies. The key thrusts of this NSI include, in some sense, nanosensors monitoring nanomaterials. Rather than conjuring up images of self-monitoring nanomaterials that become self-aware and take over the world, one can focus on the key aspects of this initiative that will lead to the realization of nano-enabled sensing technologies, and improved understanding of nanomaterials and systems to benefit society.

The NSI coordinates existing and emerging efforts to explore the use of nanotechnology in two thrust areas:

1. Develop and promote adoption of new technologies that employ nanoscale materials and features and the size dependent properties of engineered nanomaterials to overcome technical barriers associated with conventional sensors, focusing on three goals;

  • Support research on nanomaterials and nanoscale device components to enable the next generation of sensors, including tunable, label-free, and enzymatic sensors
  • Support development of integrated and portable sensor devices, including information systems support for collection, analysis, and transfer of large amounts of sensor data
  • Accelerate commercialization and expand the application base of existing nanosensor base

2. Develop methods and devices to detect and identify engineered nanomaterials across their life-cycles in order to assess their potential impact on health, safety, and the environment, focusing on three goals:

  • Identify and quantify unique magnetic, optical and electronic signatures of nanomaterials in specific matrices with minimal sample preparation
  • Identify “surrogate” indicators of nanomaterial presence
  • Design and develop “tags” for nanomaterials that will enable their detection and measurement if released into the environment

Further reading the details of the initiative, several aspects that are relevant to the nanomanufacturing community include the implementation of successful nanomanufacturing processes, which will be further coordinated through the NSI on Sustainable Nanomanufacturing. The NSI will further establish protocols and standards for device testing, data collection, transfer and assessment, and establish open-format databases on nanomaterials. The second thrust will address challenges in developing sensors and tools to characterize the physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials, and understand these emergent properties in the context of physical and biological environments, thereby coordinating with the NSI on Nanotechnology Knowledge Infrastructure and the NNI Environmental, Health, and Safety Research Strategy. Such a coordinated initiative provides the infrastructural emphasis that has been lacking in the micro/nanosensor world to date. Many commercialization strategies have been premature, and doomed to failure for diverse reasons including lack of consistent materials supply chain, lack of scaled manufacturing processes, or inadequate levels of integration for built in redundancy, data acquisition, and signal processing which all enable low-cost integrated system designs to be commercially competitive. By attacking the problem from all aspects in a concerted fashion, the level of successful deployment and commercialization of nanosensors, as well as nano-enabled sensor systems will improve substantially. In this context, the concept of nanosensor systems monitoring nanomaterials now seems within reach, and still rather intriguing.