ORLANDO, FLA. — Nanotechnology is fast moving from the world of science fiction to science fact, with developments and applications that will ultimately create new, lighter and stronger materials that it is hoped will benefit business and public alike. So said Michael Meador, manager of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program’s Nanotechnology Project, at an Antec session at NPE 2015 in Orlando March 23.Meador, who also is chief of NASA’s Glenn Polymers Branch and is currently on loan to the White House Office of Science and Technology as director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, said he and his colleagues at the National Nanotechnology Institute were pursuing a vision set out by President Clinton in a speech 15 years ago to produce lighter, stronger and more durable materials.
The NNI has been funded to the tune of $22 billion since its creation, but nanotechnology research is not just an expensive pipe dream for white-coated scientists. It has already found its way into a number of products: silica aerogels were in use on insulation materials for batteries on the Mars Rover, while a carbon nanotube-based sensor was used on the International Space Station.
An element of Clinton’s vision was the ability of nanotechnology to increase the capacity to store huge amounts of data in smaller and smaller devices, and detect cancer tumors within a small number of cells.
But it appears that aerospace will be where much of the potential lies. Ultra-lightweight structural nanomaterials can reduce the density of state-of-the-art structural composites by 50 percent and yet have the same or better properties.
Using such technology, the weight of a space vehicle could potentially be reduced by up to 30 percent, which Meador described as a “game changer.” Meanwhile, the use of carbon nanotubes for cables can reduce the amount of material used in commercial aircraft, as well as spacecraft, leading to yet more weight reduction.
Crucially, Meador said the future direction of nanotechnology lies in its intersection with other industries — advanced manufacturing, precision medicine, brain research and anti-microbial resistant bacteria — and opportunities for collaboration and new applications.
There are enormous possibilities surrounding developments in changing the properties of a range of structures, some of which currently remained undiscovered, he added.