The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The Second Annual Nanoclast Awards

The best and sometimes the worst of nanotech through the eyes of the Nanoclast

4 min read
The Second Annual Nanoclast Awards

Last year I set out with some trepidation on the long-term project of maintaining an annual Nanoclast Awards.

We have arrived at the second year of this project and I haven’t yet abandoned it.

In the inaugural event I established three prize categories: Best Advancement in Nanomaterials, Best Advancement in Microscopy and the Most Annoying Nano-related Story of the Year.

 I was never quite married to these categories so I am going to change them somewhat this time around. We will again see Best Advancement in Nanomaterials, but this time Best Nano-Enabled Device and Nanotech Hero of the Year will join them.

Best Advancement in Nanomaterials

Without further ado, on to the nominees for Best Advancement in Nanomaterials: For this category, I would like to exercise some symmetry (and avoid graphene taking all the nominations) and have the nominees come from quantum dots, graphene and carbon nanotubes.

The first nominee will come from carbon nanotubes. It in fact involves two breakthroughs from one researcher and her team’s attempts to use carbon nanotubes in flexible electronics.

Zhenan Bao and her research team at Stanford University devised a method by which they could spray single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) onto a thin layer of silcone and create a stretchable pressure sensor, that could act like an artificial skin.

While this bit of the research was impressive it was perhaps the method they developed for sorting the SWNTs that may have an even broader impact. By combining these two pieces of research together, it has been nominated in the carbon nanotube category for Best Advancement in Nanomaterials.

For quantum dots it has been encouraging to see more work coming out for their application to solar cells. While there have been others that have furthered the use of quantum dots in photovoltaics, Edward H. Sargent and his research team at the University of Toronto have really stood out.

Sargent and his collaborators have pushed colloidal quantum dot (CQD) solar cell energy conversion efficiency up to 6 percent. Sargent’s aim in this work is ambitious: to “break the existing compromise between performance and cost.”

For graphene it has been another bumper crop year. Typically, graphene grabs headlines for the work being done in applying it to electronics. But graphene is showing its worth in other applications, especially in areas where its inherent lack of a bandgap doesn’t create such a liability.

While perhaps humble in comparison to using graphene to maintain Moore’s Law, research at the University of Colorado, Boulder have discovered that graphene has unexpected adhesion characteristics that could lead to some quickly applicable industrial uses, such as natural gas processing or water purification.

Obviously, the nanomaterials category is the most competitive and as a result some truly groundbreaking work may have inadvertently been omitted, but the winner this year from our three nominees goes to: Edward H. Sargent and his research team at the University of Toronto for their work in improving the energy conversion rate of colloidal quantum dots.

Best Nano-Enabled Device

Now on to our second category, Best Nano-Enabled Device.

Our first nominee comes from the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at the University of California, Berkeley and involves their work in developing a graphene-based optical modulator.

What is so noteworthy about this work is how easily it can be adapted into CMOS manufacturing.

The second nominee could also win “My Biggest Regret of the Year” award, if there was one. I rather flippantly dismissed this work mainly because of a bad headline, and I was fairly and emphatically criticized. But however you look at it, the work is significant. Researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Ultrahigh Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) nodes at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University have developed a device that slows down light enough so as to generate individual pairs of photons. This device will likely enable faster information speeds and data that is impossible to hack.

As one of the comments made clear in the original story: “It is undoubtedly enabled by nanotechnology - we need control of dimensions to scales as small as a nanometer or so to get these devices to work the way we really want them to - and the key dimensions are indeed of the order of 100 nm.” I agree and stand corrected.

The third and final nominee for this category goes to the work of Charles Lieber and his team at Harvard University for using nanowires to create the for the first time programmable logic “tiles”.

Lieber remained realistic about the possibilities of the devices, citing their slow processing speed, but remarked that because of their high density and low power consumption they could be attractive for a “controller for some microelectromechanical device.”

The winner for this year’s Nanoclast Award for best Nano-enabled device goes to Dr Chunle Xiong of the University of Sydney and Macquarie University's Associate Professor Michael Steel along with the rest of their CUDOS colleagues.

Nanotech Hero of the Year

 Now on to our third and final category: Nanotech Hero of the Year.

This year I was grateful to meet in person a number of nanotech heroes face-to-face, namely Michael Grätzel, Heinrich Rohrer  and Gerd Binnig.

But these personal heroes of mine are not what I intend for this category no matter how great their accomplishments. Instead I want to highlight an individual who has taken a stand within the field that runs contrary to established beliefs this year.

For this category, I have only one nominee and winner: Professor Mike Kelly at Cambridge University for Advanced Photonics and Electronics, who has made himself a bit of a pariah I would have to think for his contention that nanotechnology will be limited to three nanometers.

From my original blog entry: “The main thrust of Kelly’s argument is one that is not altogether that radical, which is that you may be able to fabricate one-off structures that have dimensions below 3nm but you won’t be able to duplicate that in a full-scale manufacturing process.”

It is a debatable point and may ultimately be proven to be false, but it should and likely will govern how nanotechnology research is conducted and as a result we will surely have better work as a result.

The Conversation (0)

The Transistor at 75

The past, present, and future of the modern world’s most important invention

2 min read
A photo of a birthday cake with 75 written on it.
Lisa Sheehan

Seventy-five years is a long time. It’s so long that most of us don’t remember a time before the transistor, and long enough for many engineers to have devoted entire careers to its use and development. In honor of this most important of technological achievements, this issue’s package of articles explores the transistor’s historical journey and potential future.

Keep Reading ↓Show less