Nanotechnology Enabled Sensors Possibilities Realities and Diverse Applications

David J. Nagel and Sharon Smith

Whether you are a producer or a user of sensors, your business will likely be impacted by current and future developments in nanotechnology. Emerging nanotechnologies offer an unprecedented promise for sensors: smaller size and weight, lower power requirements, more sensitivity, and more specificity, to name a few.

This chapter surveys both the promise and the limitations of the new sensors that are enabled by technologies on the scale of nanometers (one-thousandth of a micrometer). Nanosensors and nano-enabled sensors have applications in a wide variety of industries, including transportation, communications, building and facilities, medicine, safety, defense, and national security. Proposed applications of nanoscale sensors are far reaching and include using nanowire nanosensors to detect chemicals and biologics, putting nanosensors in blood cells to detect early radiation damage in astronauts, and using nanoshells to detect and destroy tumors.® Many such applications are being developed by start-up companies, which seek to build businesses that exploit particular nanoscale effects or particular applications of nanotechnology.

The expected impact of nanotechnology on sensors can be understood by noting that most chemical and biological sensors, as well as many physical sensors, depend on interactions that occur on the scale of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology refers to an expanding science, and a very promising technology, that enables the creation of functional materials, devices, and systems through control of matter at the scale of atoms and molecules, and the exploitation of novel properties and phenomena at the same scale.®

Nanotechnologies can extend the long-established trend toward smaller, faster, cheaper materials and devices. The miniaturization of macro techniques led to the now established field of microtechnologies. For example, electronic, optical, and mechanical microtechnologies have had a dramatic impact on the sensor industry in recent decades. Improved, new, and smart sensors are among the many beneficial effects of integrated circuits, fiber, and other microoptics and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). Now, developments in nanotechnology will drive the devices into even smaller dimensions, with significant potential advantages.

As the trend continues toward the use of smaller building blocks of atoms and molecules, there will also tend to be convergence of technology disciplinesfor example, the merging of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology. This overlap and the resulting synergy should contribute to the growing strength of each of these major technologies.


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