small plans: nanotechnology for the building industry

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Carbon nanotubes used to create fire-resistant plastics

Materials scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are using carbon nanotubes to make plastics more resistant to fire.

Jack Douglas and his colleagues found that plastics containing nantubes don't burn as easily as ordinary plastics. The nanotubes create a layer of insulation when plastic boils, and also reduce the bubbling that fuels combustion.

"Normally,” Douglas said, “when plastic burns, it looks like a lava field. There are a lot of hot cracks where heat is being released. But in plastics containing carbon nanotubes, you don't get those cracks forming."

The nanotube alternative may help reduce the reliance on the toxic additives traditionally use to make plastics fire-resistant.

Hear the interview with Douglas at Earth & Sky. (photo Frank Douglas)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tiny biomimetic camera creates artificial eye

Here’s an invention that brings two major issues in nanotechnology to the fore.

Using the eyes of houseflies as models, a team of bioengineers at University of California, Berkeley, has created a series of artificial compound eyes, according to EurekAlert.

These eyes could eventually be used as cameras or sensory detectors to capture visual or chemical information from a wider field of vision than previously possible, even with the best fish-eye lens, said Luke P. Lee, the team's principal investigator. Potential applications include surveillance, high-speed motion detection and environmental sensing.

What he and his team came up with is a low-cost, easy-to-replicate method of creating pinhead-sized polymer resin domes spiked with thousands of light-guiding channels, each topped with its own lens. Not only are these units packed together in the same hexagonal, honeycomb pattern as in an insect's compound eye, but each is also remarkably similar in size, design, shape and function to an ommatidium, the individual sensory unit of a compound eye.

That’s the first issue this discovery raises: biomimicry. It seems that almost every day a new breakthrough occurs in nanotechnology based on a biological design. It’s great to see scientists looking at nature, wondering how it works, and applying that sense of wonder in the lab to create new things.

On the other hand, this particular advance raises the thorny issue of privacy, another frequent concern in nanotechnology. When we can fit a thousand cameras on the head of a pin, we’ll never know when we’re being watched.

We’ve already seen cellphones banned from many locker rooms because so many cells have cameras and it’s unclear when a picture’s being taken. But when cameras can be woven into clothing or invisibly integrated into buildings, how will we protect ourselves from unwanted observation? (photo Charles Krebs)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Nano-switch links biological, mechanical worlds

A switch so small it can move DNA fragments could lead to deeper integration of biological and human-made materials.

The researchers used a type of molecular motor known as a 'Restriction-Modification enzyme'. This molecular motor attaches itself only to specific sequences of DNA.

The DNA strand is held upright by a magnetic field, pulling a magnetic marker at the end of the DNA strand. The molecular motor sits somewhere below the magnetic marker at a specific position, and does not move. When the molecular engine is started, when fed biological fuel ATP, it pulls the DNA strand, stopping when it reaches the magnetic marker.

“Frankly, some researchers didn't think what we were doing was possible,” says Dr Keith Firman, on the completion of the Mol-Switch project that he coordinates. “It could be used as a communicator between the biological and silicon worlds. I could see it providing an interface between muscle and external devices, through its use of ATP, in human implants.”

Six partners, the University of Portsmouth, UK; the National Physical Laboratory, UK; ENS/CNRS, France; TUDelft, the Netherlands; the University of Parma, Italy and the Institute of Microbiology in Prague, the Czech Republic, developed the nano-device over three years.

A switch capable of integrating biological materials like DNA with inorganic ones is an important step in the creation of biomaterials that combine the advantages of traditional, non-living materials like silicon for electronics or carbon for structures with living cells or DNA.

Architectural applications could conceivably include photosynthetic walls or breathable windows.

More info on the Mol-Switch project is available at Nanonet. (photo Cordis information service)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Photomicrography competition reveals nanoworld

While we tend to focus on nanotechnology as a provider of new materials, it can also provide design inspiration.

At the Small World Photomicrography Competition website you’ll find an amazing array of images from the nanoworld. Most of the work is at the microscale, an order of magnitude bigger than nanoscale, but it's still a magnificent showcase exposing the beauty of an unseen world.

Pictured is last year’s 3rd prize winner by Stefan Eberhard, revealing the microstructure of crystallized vitamin A

I highly recommend the gallery both for its sheer aesthetic pleasure and as a way to get to know the nanoworld. A picture, in this case, is worth a billion words.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Paint-on laser could help materials communicate

Ted Sargent carries a liquid laser in his briefcase.

Sargent, a Professor at the University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, created the new laser using colloidal quantum dots — nanometre-sized particles of semiconductor that are suspended in a solvent like the particles in paint. “We’ve made a laser that can be smeared onto another material,” says Sargent.

According to Sjoerd Hoogland, a post-doctoral fellow and the first author of the paper, the laser’s most remarkable feature was its simplicity. “I made the laser by dipping a miniature glass tube in the paint and then drying it with a hairdryer,” he said. “Once the right nanoparticles are made, the procedure takes about five minutes.”

“We crystallized precisely the size of the nanoparticles that would tune the color of light coming from the laser. We chose nanoparticle size, and thus color, the way a guitarist chooses frets to select the pitch of the instrument,” Hoogland said.

The liquid laser’s primary application is in microelectronics, where it may help transfer information bits more rapidly than silicon. But the prospect of paint-on lasers certainly sounds interesting for its architectural applications.

Could paint-on lasers allow materials to send information to each other and to their users? Or perhaps their frequency could be tuned to enable common materials to emit visible light. (photo Trevor Johnston/University of Toronto)

Monday, April 24, 2006

OLED breakthrough could lead to light-emitting windows

Interior lighting could look vastly different in the future, thanks to a breakthrough by researchers at the University of Southern California and Princeton University.

The team has created a highly efficient and long-lived natural light source using organic light-emitting devices (OLEDs).

Since OLEDs are transparent when turned off, the devices could even be installed as windows or skylights to mimic the feel of natural light after dark - or to serve as the ultimate inconspicuous flat-panel television.

Almost any surface in a home, whether flat or curved, could become a light source: walls, curtains, ceilings, cabinets or tables.

"With a future emphasis on manufacturing technology, this structure may provide an important, low-cost and efficient means that will replace incandescent lighting in many different applications," co-principal investigator Stephen Forrest said.

To learn more about how it works visit EurekAlert. Don’t miss the US Department of Energy site to learn more about white-light OLEDs. (photo DOE)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nanotech market expected to reach $700 billion by 2007

The world’s largest market research firm is predicting that the nanotechnology market will grow from $225 billion in 2005 to $700 billion by next year.

That’s the remarkable conclusion of Research and Markets’ hot-off-the-press report, “Nanotechnology - The Coming Revolution”.

“Until only a few decades ago,” notes the report, “nanotechnology was an unknown entity in the public space. But now it is widely known to be the next revolutionizing frontier of science.”

“It is widely understood to be the propeller of the new century of evolutions,” the report concludes.

The report covers nanotech applications in biomedical processes, space science, computing and robotics, drug delivery processes, and chip technology. Unfortunately, it overlooks the huge markets in construction, engineering and energy despite indications that nanotech is poised to have a big impact in all of these areas.

And in case you’re wondering how a technology market can more than triple in size in just two years, it’s because of the billions of dollars that are pouring into nanotech development, primarily through the federal government.

All of that research and development is now starting to work its way into the production and marketing of consumer products. At small plans we’ll continue to keep you up to date on those that impact architecture, engineering and construction. It should be an exciting year.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

NanoStudio: architecture students design with nanomaterials

Students in my architecture studio have come up with some very innovative designs using nanotechnology in our NanoStudio. In this third year architecture studio at the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University we explored the architectural applications of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology has the potential to transform the built environment in ways almost unimaginable today. Carbon nanotubes, for example, have been created that are 250 times stronger than steel, 10 times lighter, and transparent. Similar advances are occurring in glass, plastics and concrete. Our mission for this project was to imagine the potential of one of these revolutionary materials, and implement it in the design of a residence.

I'll be presenting the work of the NanoStudio at
the Nanotech 2006 show May 7-11 in Boston. Nanotech 2006 is the nation's largest nanotech conference, featuring more than 300 exhibitors and attract more than 3,000 attendees.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Nanotech making smart homes a reality

Innovations in MEMS (MicroElectroMechnical Systems), nanomaterials and other emerging technologies are making smart homes a reality for the masses.

The January 2006 Bourne Report says that more sensors than ever are being adopted as a way to provide increased convenience to the consumer, with manufacturers of HVAC, lighting products and white goods among the first to adopt.

"Consumer-friendly products and approaches are what will truly drive the growth of this segment," said Marlene Bourne, Principal Analyst at Research and Markets, "and both MEMS and nanomaterials are playing a key role here." Photo MIT

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bomb-proof glass from transparent nanotubes

A team of researchers at the University of Toledo was trying to make stronger, lighter armor for Army vehicles when the Army came calling with a special plea: Can you drop that research program and instead concentrate on making glass that can withstand bullets and bombs?

According to a report in The Blade, insurgents in Iraq had figured out they couldn't always knock out an armored vehicle, but they could shoot through the windshield glass. Walter Roy, a materials engineer for the Army, made a special trip to the University of Toledo "to plead with us about this," said Arun Nadarajah, a professor in chemical and environmental engineering.

"It's one thing if someone gives you this idea abstractly, [and] abstractly asks, 'Would you consider doing this?' Then, probably not. But he came and made a very emotional pitch to the group," he said.

"I never met another government official like him. This guy was very different," Mr. Nadarajah said.

It was a dilemma for the research group of eight scientists and a dozen graduate students. For the previous two years, they'd been busy expanding their expertise on carbon nanofibers, which make a human hair look downright obese. Nanofibers were to be the key to creating strong, light armor. But there's a problem with taking that expertise and applying it to the Army's new request: You can't see through carbon. The UT group's work wouldn't transfer easily into making better windshields.

When Mr. Roy of the Army made his request, the UT group was in the second year of a three-year contract to find the right way to make strong armor. Each year of the contract, the group got $900,000 to work on armored vehicles.

Changing research "was not an easy decision," Mr. Nadarajah said. But, ultimately, the group decided that "this was important enough to take a stab at changing our course."

The researchers haven't had to scrap all of their carbon work. For instance, some changes they made to carbon nanofibers to increase material flexibility can be made in the transparent materials as well.

The group is experimenting with materials that become transparent at the nanoscale. They will blend these reinforcing nanofibers with polymers such as the polycarbonate used in eyeglasses to create Army-ready windshields.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Spray coating blocks wi-fi signals

NaturalNano has developed a spray coating embedded with copper-filled halloysite nanotubes which can be applied to the walls of a room, providing a passive blocking agent for radio frequency (RF) energy.

"Many existing structures including concert and convention halls, movie theaters, and other buildings could benefit from enhanced control over outside radio frequency radiation with a passive, cost-effective solution," said Michael Riedlinger, President of NaturalNano.

They've combined the shielding coating with a technology that enables authorized users to log onto a private network in an area that is otherwise RF shielded. "This technology," said Riedlinger, "also allows the facility operator to potentially charge fees for wireless access within an otherwise RF shielded environment."

For details on how it works, and a Fox Report video, visit NaturalNano. (image NaturalNano)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Thin-film and organic photovoltaics on the rise

Integrated building and construction products such as photovoltaic-enabled roofing and window materials are projected to be the largest market opportunity in the booming thin-film and organic photovoltaics (PV) field, measuring $800 million by 2011.

EETimes reports that the total market for thin-film and organic PV is projected to be worth over $2.3 billion by 2011, according to NanoMarkets, an industry analyst firm.

Honda Motor Co., for example, has announced it will soon start full-scale production of thin-film PV products and Shell Oil has just sold off its conventional PV business to focus on thin film.

On the other hand, NanoMarkets points out that thin film and organic PV is also a technology space that has received its fair share of hype and controversy with competing claims by different manufacturers on where and how it can be applied, and disputes over conversion efficiencies and costs per watt.

On the materials front, amorphous silicon, the best established of the various thin-film PV materials, will represent an $800 million opportunity followed by organic and hybrid organic/inorganic materials and then CIS/CIGS.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Nano-tex to offer stain-resistant fabrics for interiors

Nano-tex, the company that brought you stain-resistant pants, has entered the home furnishings market. Six leading commercial textile companies are incorporating Nano-Tex's stain resistant fabric treatment into their product lines. In a press release, the company said that

With Nano-Tex enhanced fabric, textiles ordinarily considered "off-limits" for commercial interiors -- such as light colored or delicate fabrics -- are now accessible, giving the design community greater creative freedom to realize their artistic vision.

Transparent to the eye and indistinguishable to the touch, Nano-Tex's stain resistant fabric treatment delivers the market's highest level of stain repellency and durability to protect fabrics from everyday spills and stains making it a logical choice for high-use and high traffic areas.

"The migration of enhanced textiles from apparel into commercial interiors is a natural evolution for Nano-Tex because both industries share a design and fashion sensibility," said Renee DeLack Hultin, executive vice president of global sales. (

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Smog-eating concrete under development

Nanotechnology may play a major role in cleaning up the environment as building materials capable of scrubbing pollutants from the air come on line. According to an Associated Press report,

From catalytic converters to alternative fuels, the fight against big-city smog has

for years been fought inside combustion engines and exhaust pipes.

Now, scientists are taking the fight to the streets by developing "smart" building materials designed to clean the air with a little help from the elements.

Using technology already available for self-cleaning windows and bathroom tiles, scientists hope to paint cities with materials that dissolve and wash away pollutants when exposed to sun and rain.

"Among other things, we want to construct concrete walls that break down vehicle exhausts in road tunnels," said Karin Pettersson, a spokeswoman for Swedish construction giant
Skanska. "It is also possible to make pavings that clean the air in cities."

This is the idea: UV rays hitting the titanium dioxide trigger a catalytic reaction that destroys the molecules of pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, which are emitted in the burning of fossil fuels and create smog when combined with volatile organic compounds.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Nanotech comes to Home Depot

BEHR Paint has introduced a new Premium Plus Interior Sateen Kitchen and Bath Enamel, the first paint of its kind to utilize nanotechnology. According to the company, the nanotech component makes for superior physical and aesthetic qualities and enables the paint to double as an impenetrable safeguard against mildew and stains in those high-traffic areas of the home that are most susceptible.

"Kitchens and bathrooms are often the most difficult environments to maintain in a home," said Mary Rice, Vice President Marketing, BEHR Paints. "Using nanotechnology to create our new Kitchen and Bath Enamel has enabled us to provide a product with excellent application properties and color matching with a remarkably resilient finish to protect against the elements."

BEHR's new Kitchen and Bath Enamel is the product of an innovative formula created with nanotechnology in which key ingredients are reduced to nano-sized particles that enhance the performance of the paint, resulting in an extremely hard, durable finish. The product offers outstanding water resistance, provides excellent scrubbability, easy stain removal, superior stain blocking resistance and improved application properties.

The resilient finish helps the paint to retain its luminous sheen for longer periods of time. The more than 2,000 shades can be viewed, coordinated and applied to a virtual room using ColorSmart by BEHR at The line is available for purchase at The Home Depot stores nationwide.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

small plans: the new name of nanotechnology and design

To jumpstart the rebirth of this blog, I've got a new name and a new "about" statement. These point to the new focus - nanotechnology for the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries.

Some people unfamiliar with nanotech still ask me what it has to do with architecture. The answer is, plenty. Dozens of nano building products are already available, from self-cleaning windows to flexible solar cells. And many, many more are in development.

I want to make small plans your information hub for nanotech in AEC, and also a forum for discussion on its broader impacts. How, for example, will the coming improvements in building technology, from self-healing structures to distributed sensor networks, change the form and the making of our world?

Stay tuned for more discussion, debate, and updates on all the latest developments in this transformative technology.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Welcome back!

Hello again. After four months devoted to my general nanotech blog at, and the contuning adventures of work as an Associate Professor in architecture, and now president of a nanotech research and advising firm (more on that later), I'm back at nanotechnology + design.

I'll continue to post to nanotechbuzz, and I hope you'll check it out for the latest news on nanotechnology in general, but I missed the focus on architecture, engineering and construction that nanotechnology + design provides.

There's plenty going in nanotechnology that applies to architecture, particularly in the area of new materials with some very interesting properties and potentials. And I think it's important that those of us responsible for designing and making the environment maintain an active discussion on the potential impacts of this powerful technology.

So welcome back, or if you're new to nanotechnology + design, welcome! I'm delighted to be back, and I look forward to providing you with the information and insights you're looking for.

Dr. George Elvin