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Recent advances in both technology and
science of novel materials have provided Operating on the scale of atoms and
the means to study, understand, control, molecules, emerging nanotechnologies
or even manipulate transitional promise dramatic changes in sensor
characteristics between isolated atoms designs and capabilities.
and molecules, and bulk materials.
If you make or use sensors, your
Various novel nanoscale materials, business will likely feel the impact of
devices, and systems with remarkable current and future developments in
properties have recently been developed, nanotechnology, a very promising new
exhibiting numerous unique applications branch of small-scale technology named
in chemical and biological sensors, for the unit of measure at which it
nanophotonics, and in-vivo analysis of operates: the nanometer, or 0.001
cellular processes. Such developments, micron. Nanotechnology enables us to
especially in the last decade, has seeded create functional materials, devices, and
sector specific focus in areas viz. systems by controlling matter at the
defense, energy, communication, atomic and molecular scales, and to
computing, materials production, textile, exploit novel properties and phenomena.
health care and medicine. Consider that most chemical and
biological sensors, as well as many
Notwithstanding such advances, physical sensors, depend on interactions
perpetual increase in population and thus occurring at these levels and you'll get
consumption of fossil fuels has led to an idea of the effect nanotechnology will
increased pollution worldwide - a have on the sensor world.
leading contributor to chronic and
deadly health disorders and diseases The trend toward the small began with
affecting millions of people each year, the miniaturization of macro techniques,
hence sustainability. The presentation which led to the now well-established
will provide an overview of field of micro technology. Electronic,
nanotechnology based sensors with optical, and mechanical micro
applications in national security and technologies have all profited from the
environmental pollution sensing and smaller, smarter, and less costly sensors
monitoring. that resulted from work with ICs, fiber
optics, other micro-optics, and MEMS
(micro electro mechanical systems). As
we continue to work with these
minuscule building blocks, there will be
a convergence of nanotechnology,
biotechnology, and information
technology, among others, with benefits
for each discipline. Substantially smaller
size, lower weight, more modest power
requirements, greater sensitivity, and

better specificity are just a few of the
improvements we'll see in sensor design.

Nanosensors and nano-enabled sensors

have applications in many industries,
among them transportation,
communications, building and facilities,
medicine, safety, and national security,
including both homeland defense and
military operations. Consider nanowire
sensors that detect chemicals and
biologics, nanosensors placed in blood
cells to detect early radiation damage in
astronauts, and nanoshells that detect
and destroy tumors. Many start-up [Carbon nanotubes can exist in a variety
companies are already at work of forms and can be either metallic or
developing these devices in an effort to semi conducting in nature, depending on
get in at the beginning. Funding for their atomic structure.]
nanotechnology increased by more than
a factor of 5 between 1997 and 2003, Another major contributor was the
and is still on the rise. So this is a good creation of carbon nanotubes (CNTs),
time to examine the possibilities—and extremely narrow, hollow cylinders
the limitations—of this small new world. made of carbon atoms. Both single- and
multi-walled CNTs could, for example,
be functionalized at their ends to act as
biosensors for DNA or proteins. The
Possibilities single-walled versions can have different
geometries. Depending on the exact
orientation of the carbon atoms, a CNT
can exhibit either conducting (metallic)
The current global enthusiasm for
or semiconducting properties. This
nanotechnology is an offshoot of several
characteristic and the ability to grow
late 20th century advances. Of particular
CNTs at specific locations and
importance was the ability to manipulate
manipulated afterward, make it likely
individual atoms in a controlled fashion
that the tubes will be important for
—a sort of atomic bricklaying—by
electronics and sensors. For instance,
techniques such as scanning probe
they can be used in the fabrication of
microscopy. Initial successes in
nano field-effect transistors for
producing significant amounts of silver
electronics or as biological probes for
and gold nanoparticles helped to draw
sensors, either singly or as an array.
even more attention, as did the discovery
that materials and devices on the atomic
and molecular scales have new and
useful properties due in part to surface
and quantum effects.

Increasingly Integrated include in situ sensing of structural
Technologies. materials, sensor redundancy in systems,
and size- and weight-constrained
The technologies associated with structures such as satellites and space
materials, devices, and systems were platforms.
once relatively separate, but integration
has become the ideal. First, transistors Nanomaterials and nanostructures are
were made into ICs. Next came the other promising application areas. Two
integration of micro-optics and functions often separated in many
micromechanics into devices that were sensors, especially those for chemicals
packaged individually and mounted on and biological substances, are
PCBs. The use of flip chips (where the recognition of the molecule or other
chip is the package), and placement of object of interest and transduction of that
passive components within PCBs, are recognition event into a useful signal.
blurring the distinction between devices Nanotechnology will enable us to design
and systems. The high levels of sensors that are much smaller, less
integration made possible by power hungry, and more sensitive than
nanotechnology has made the (very current micro- or macro sensors. Sensing
smart) material essentially the device applications will thus enjoy benefits far
and possibly also the system. Larry beyond those offered by MEMS and
Bock, chief executive for Nanosys, other micro sensors.
recently noted that "nanotech takes the
complexity out of the system and puts it
in the material".
Manufacturing Advances
We can now seriously contemplate
sensing the interaction of a small number Recent advances in top-down
of molecules, processing and manufacturing processes have spurred
transmitting the data with a small both micro- and nanotechnologies.
number of electrons, and storing the Makers of leading-edge ICs use
information in nanometer-scale lithography, etching, and deposition to
structures. Fluorescence and other means sculpt a substrate such as silicon and
of single-molecule detection are being build structures on it. Conventional
developed. IBM and others are working microelectronics has approached the
on data storage systems that use nanometer scale—line widths in chips
proximal probes to make and read are near the 100 nm level and are
nanometer-scale indentations in continuing to shrink. MEMS devices are
polymers. These systems promise constructed in a similar top-down
read/write densities near 1 × 1012 bits/sq. process. As these processes begin
in., far in excess of current magnetic working on smaller and smaller
storage capabilities. Although presenting dimensions, they can be used to make a
a significant challenge, integration of variety of nanotechnology components,
nano-scale technologies could lead to much as a large lathe can be used to
tiny, low-power, smart sensors that make small parts in a machine shop.
could be manufactured cheaply in large
numbers. Their service areas could

In the nano arena, various bottom-up DIFFERENT SENSORS
methods use individual atoms and
molecules to build useful structures.
Physical Sensors
Under the right conditions, the atoms,
molecules, and larger units can self-
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of
assemble. Alternatively, directed
Technology led by Walter de Heer
assembly can be used.
devised the world's smallest "balance"
by taking advantage of the unique
In either case, the combination of nano-
electrical and mechanical properties of
scale top-down and bottom-up processes
carbon nanotubes. They mounted a
gives materials and device designers a
single particle on the end of a CNT and
wide variety of old and new tools.
applied an electrical charge to it. Acting
Designers can also combine micro- and
much like a strong, flexible spring, the
nanotechnologies to develop new sensor
CNT oscillated, without breaking, and
the mass of the particle was calculated
from changes in the resonance
Computational Design vibrational frequency with and without
the particle. This approach may allow
Recently developed experimental tools, the mass of individual biomolecules to
notably synchrotron X-radiation and be measured.
nuclear magnetic resonance, have
revealed the atomic structures of many
complex molecules. But this knowledge
is not enough; we need to understand the
interactions of atoms and molecules in
the recognition and sometimes the
transduction stages of sensing. The
availability of powerful computers and
algorithms for simulating nano-scale
interactions means that we can design
nanosensors computationally, and not
just experimentally, by using the
molecular dynamics codes and
calculations that are already fundamental
tools in nanotechnology.

[The mass of a carbon sphere shifts the

resonance frequency of the carbon
nanotube to which it is attached.]

Electrometers network to detect hydrogen
concentrations in the atmosphere. And
Cleland and Roukes at the California Kong et al. have developed a chemical
Institute of Technology reported the sensor for gaseous molecules such as
fabrication and characterization of a NO2 and NH3 that is based on nanotube
working, submicron mechanical molecular wires.
electrometer. This device has
demonstrated charge sensitivity below a Datskos and Thundat used a focused ion
single electron charge per unit beam technique to fabricate
bandwidth (~0.1 electrons/ Hz at 2.61 nanocantilevers and have developed an
MHz), better than that of state-of-the-art electron transfer transduction approach
semiconductor devices. to measure cantilever motion. The
results might be sensitive enough to
detect single chemical and biological
molecules. Structurally modified
semiconducting nanobelts of ZnO have
also been demonstrated applicable to
nanocantilever sensors.

[A nanometer-scale mechanical
electrometer consists of a torsional
mechanical resonator, a detection
electrode, and a gate electrode used to
couple charge to the mechanical
element. A schematic and micrographs
of a single element and an array of [This nano-array incorporates capacitive
elements are shown.] readout cantilevers and electronics for
signal analysis.]
Chemical Sensors
Various nanotube-based gas sensors
have been described in the past few Nanotechnology will also enable the
years. Modi et al. have developed a very selective, sensitive detection of a
miniaturized gas ionization detector broad range of biomolecules. By using
based on CNTs. The sensor could be the sequential electrochemical reduction
used for gas chromatography. of the metal ions onto an alumina
template, we can now create cylindrical
Titania nanotube hydrogen sensors have rods made up of metal sections 50 nm to
been incorporated in a wireless sensor 5 microns long. These particles,

trademarked Nanobarcodes, can be
coated with analyte-specific entities such
as antibodies for selective detection of
complex molecules. DNA detection with
these nano-scale coded particles has also
been demonstrated.

[Vertical carbon nanotubes are grown on

a silicon chip. DNA molecules attached
at the ends of the tubes detect specific
types of DNA in an analyte.]

Deployable Nanosensors

The SnifferSTAR, a lightweight,

portable chemical detection system , is a
good example of nanotechnology's
potential for field applications. This
unique system combines a nanomaterial
for sample collection and concentration
with a MEMÄ-based chemical lab-on-a-
chip detector. SnifferSTAR will likely
find work in defense and homeland
security and is ideal for deployment on
unmanned systems such as micro
unmanned aerial vehicles.
[DNA and other biomaterials can be
sensed using encoded antibodies on
Nanobarcodes particles.]

Researchers at NASA Ames Research

Center have taken a different route. They
cover the surface of a chip with millions
of vertically mounted CNTs 30–50 nm
in dia. When the DNA molecules
attached to the ends of the nanotubes are
placed in a liquid containing DNA
molecules of interest, the DNA on the
chip attaches to the target and increases
its electrical conductivity. This [The Sniffer STAR is a nano-enabled
technique, expected to reach the chemical sensor integrated into a micro
sensitivity of fluorescence-based unmanned aerial vehicle.]
detection systems, may find application
in the development of a portable sensor.

And More thin, very flexible touch-screen. Morph
is a joint Nano Technology of Nokia
Other areas we expect to benefit from Research Center (NRC) and the
nanotechnology-based sensors include University of Cambridge (UK) and it
transportation (land, sea, air, and space); was launched at the Design and the
communications (wired and wireless, Elastic Mind exhibition.
optical, and RF); buildings and facilities
(homes, offices, factories); humans
(especially for health and medical
monitoring); and robotics of all types.

We'll also see nano-enabled sensors

increasingly integrated into commercial
and military products. Many new
companies will make nano materials and
some will make sensors based on them.
The URLs of some of these companies
are given after the Reference listings.


Although the excitement over

nanotechnology and its prospective uses [NOKIA MORPH is a piece of
is generally well founded, the translucent green plastic complete with a
development and integration of
nanosensors must take into account the circular earpiece clipped to it. Blink, and
realities imposed by physics, chemistry, it has been folded into three, making it
biology, engineering, and commerce. look like a regular mobile phone. Also
For example, as nanotechnologies are the phone can be used in wrist with
integrated into macro-sized systems,
Morph Wrist Mode. What else the
we'll have to provide for and control the
flow of matter, energy, and information camera is excellent capable of capturing
between the nano and macro scales. marvelous images and pictures. Also
drop any liquid, however sticky, onto it
The Nokia Morph is a mobile phone and it will simply roll off.]
wonder in a true sense and it can deceive
anyone with its amazing design and
looks. Morph uses nanotechnology and
liquid batteries to enable the flexibility
and transparency of the materials used.
The Usual Design Problems—
Millions of tiny micro-fibres help to hold Intensified.
the handset in a new position, while
microscopic sensors within the materials Many of the design considerations for
make the whole handset work like a very nanosensors are similar to those for

micro sensors, notably interface
requirements, heat dissipation, and the
need to deal with interference and noise, Applications
both electrical and mechanical. Each
interface in a micro system is subject to
unwanted transmission of electrical, Few sensors today are based on pure
mechanical, thermal, and, possibly, nanoscience, and the development of
chemical, acoustical, and optical fluxes. nano-enabled sensors is in the early
Dealing with unwanted molecules and stages; yet we can already foresee some
signals in very small systems often of the possible devices and applications.
requires ancillary equipment and low- Sensors for physical properties were the
temperature operation to reduce noise. focus of some early development efforts,
Flow control is especially critical in but nanotechnology will contribute most
chemical and biological sensors into heavily to realizing the potential of
which gaseous or liquid analytes are chemical and biosensors for safety,
brought and from which they are medical, and other purposes. Vo-Dinh,
expelled. Furthermore, the very Cullum, and Stokes recently provided an
sensitive, tailored surfaces of these overview of nanosensors and biochips
sensors are prone to degradation from for the detection of bimolecules.
the effects of foreign substances, heat,
and cold. But the ability to install
hundreds of sensors in a small space
allows malfunctioning devices to be CONCLUSION:
ignored in favor of good ones, thus
prolonging a system's useful lifetime.
Nanotechnology is certain to improve
Risk and Economics existing sensors and be a strong force in
developing new ones. The field is
The path from research to engineering to progressing, but considerable work must
products to revenues to profits to be done before we see its full impact.
sustained commercial operations, Among the obvious challenges are
difficult for technologies of any scale, is reducing the cost of materials and
particularly challenging for devices, improving reliability, and
nanotechnologies. One major packaging the devices into useful
impediment to their adoption is the products. Nevertheless, we are beginning
common reluctance to specify new to see nano-scale materials and devices
technologies for high-value systems. being integrated into real-world systems,
Another is that at present most nano- and the future looks very bright indeed
scale materials are hard to produce in for technology on a tiny scale.
large volumes, so unit prices are high
and markets are limited. Costs will
decrease over time, but small
companies may have a struggle
making their profit goals quickly
enough to survive.


1. "Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers: A

Review of the National Nanotechnology
Initiative," National Academy Press,

2. "Space Mission for Nanosensors,"

The Futurist, Nov./Dec. 2002, p. 13.

3. IBM Research News.

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