Nanotechnology is the use and engineering of materials at the nanoscale. Well below the microscale, this is the molecular world, where the things we’re talking about are just a billionth of a metre across. Things behave very differently here and that’s giving engineers lots of new ideas and abilities.
Nanotechnology isn’t anything new. But what is newly emerging is that we’re starting to become capable of engineering these “super materials” to our exact specifications and produce them on a larger, more industrial scale.
Graphene, for example, is a carbon sheet the thickness of a single atom. Yet, it is stronger than steel and possesses a huge range of incredibly useful properties, such as electrical conductivity, absorption of white light, and tolerance to temperature and pH change. Haydale are one of the companies manufacturing it for applications in transport.
Developing nanomaterials for the transport industries is a vital route forward to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from this huge sector, which produces a quarter of all the EU’s emissions. How? By making planes, trains and other vehicles lighter and modifying their surfaces and components to save on fuel—and potentially by completely changing the fuels they use.
Along the way, we could discover plenty more ways to use nanomaterials to improve and refine the machines we use to explore the world.
Lighter, faster & greener
Lockheed Martin has already used materials containing carbon nanofibres—so-called nanocomposites—in the Juno spacecraft and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
These materials—often polymers containing fibres such as carbon nanotubes—are often incredibly strong and highly resistant to corrosion, vibration and fire, but are less dense those traditionally used. They are already being used to replace some of the metals usually used to form the frames in aircraft. Such a nanotechnology composite may be much lighter than a metal alloy, resulting in huge and ongoing fuel savings.
Nanostructured metals can add additional strength in vulnerable areas of vehicles. For aeroplanes in particular, areas under stress—sections around doors and windows, the undercarriage and parts of the plane especially open to bird strikes—can be better protected by nanomaterials.
Super surfaces & smart sensors
Smart, multifunctional coatings are also being researched. Playing with the surface of a material at the nanoscale can reduce friction and drag, increasing durability at the same time. Such nano-coatings are already being used on turbine blades and mechanical components of aircraft.
Other nanoscale-thick films and coatings could make vehicle surfaces fend off dirt, water, light, scratches, bacteria and even fog more easily. A lot of these paints and coatings are of great use to the automotive industry, as they have such excellent benefits for consumers. Who wouldn’t want a self-cleaning car that doesn’t scratch?
Nanotechnology sensors are also being developed for a range of applications that would require very little energy to function. They could be used to detect the release of dangerous chemicals in the holds of aircraft or monitor the safety of various structures and components.
Engines and energy changes
New catalysts include nanomaterials that help reduce fuel consumption. Nanoparticles are also being added to fuels to help them burn better inside the engine, resulting in lower fuel consumption, less exhaust and a cleaner engine.
For the automotive industry in particular, the move towards electric vehicles is gathering speed. Nanotechnology may be able to help with this by helping to improve fuel cell efficiency.
For some, the vision of new future fuels powered by nanotechnology is even more ambitious. EADS Innovation Works is working with the University of Glasgow to develop a new storage system that would bring hydrogen-powered aircraft closer to reality by safely storing the gas in a solid state.
Advancing infrastructure with nanotechnology
Nanotechnology isn’t just useable for vehicles—it will slowly change our transport infrastructure for the better.
As we’ve already described for vehicles, nano-composites will make roads, runways and rails stronger and more resilient, helping them perform better in the process.
New materials could generate, store or transmit energy and provide constant, unobtrusive monitoring of the condition and performance of surfaces and road structures. It is even possible that road sensors would be able to communicate with drivers to help them maintain their road position, seek out routes and avoid other vehicles.
Nanotechnology is already stretching beyond Earth and into space. NASA, BAE Systems and other researchers and manufacturers are confident that tiny, lightweight electronics and lighter structures will become a key feature of satellites and spacecraft. And nano-electronics is likely to pave the way for satellites—and vehicles on Earth—to become fully autonomous. Doubtless, nanotechnology is key to the future of transport.