What are the examples of useful materials

New materials and materials

The famous physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman once answered the question how he would summarize the previous scientific findings in a single sentence: “The world consists of atoms.” Even if this answer can of course be discussed for a long time, so the sentence certainly forms the foundation for the fields of nanotechnology and materials science.

Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age

Materials have been an essential driving force for technological progress since the origins of human history. It is not for nothing that human development epochs have been named the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, i.e. after the most modern materials available at that time

With stone tools, humans were able to significantly increase the possibilities of their bodies in influencing their surroundings. The first simple blades could be made from stone. Later on, metalworking made it possible to manufacture tools and components with complex shapes, which finally initiated the industrial revolution with the invention of the steam engine.

Materials science is a key technology

Since then, nothing has changed in terms of the paramount relevance of materials for society. Over two thirds of all technical innovations can be traced back directly or indirectly to new materials. This applies to almost all branches of the economy and areas of need. Materials science is therefore just as much a key as it is a cross-sectional technology.

It has long since stepped out of the realm of empiricism, in which it was still at the beginning of the last century. This was only possible through a deeper understanding of the atomic structure of matter. Today, well-functioning models help scientists to research materials that are precisely tailored to the application, which - similar to the time at the beginning of the Stone Age - mean that humans are able to significantly expand the possibilities of their actions.

This makes new electronic components just as possible as new therapeutic approaches in medicine. This means that automobiles can be built lighter and used in a more fuel-efficient manner. With their help, energy can be distributed and stored more efficiently. New materials make houses more comfortable, more durable and less polluting. The range of applications for new materials is only limited by the human imagination.

Less than a hundred nanometers

Nanotechnology is another branch of technology that would be inconceivable without the aforementioned statement about the structure of matter. Richard Feynman, whose famous lecture entitled “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom” from 1959 is often seen as the starting point for nanotechnology, can also be used here. Feynman was referring to the still utopian possibility of building up matter atom by atom in a targeted manner and thereby opening up new functionalities.

Usually one speaks of nanotechnology when one of the relevant dimensions is smaller than 100 nanometers (abbreviation: nm, 1nm = 10-9m). 1 nm is so small that one can only get an approximate idea of ​​the dimensions by making comparisons: 1 nanometer is related to a meter like the diameter of a 1 euro cent coin to the diameter of the earth.

Nowadays we can change materials on the smallest scales, down to the individual atom. These are certainly fascinating possibilities. But what is the benefit behind it? On the one hand, known functionalities can be transported into areas in which they were previously not applicable. A good example here is an innovative cancer therapy that has already been approved for some types of tumors, in which iron oxide nanoparticles are used.

It is well known that metals can heat up in alternating electromagnetic fields and is used, for example, in induction cookers. If you make the heatable particles small enough and functionalize them in a way that allows them to be specifically coupled to cancer cells, you can bring heat directly into the tumors - and destroy them without endangering the healthy cells. Functionalization is still the subject of research. At present, the nanoparticles still have to be introduced into the tumor tissue in a targeted manner. (Incidentally, this therapy also partly includes the results of funding by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research in the field of nanotechnology.)

Another important aspect of nanotechnology is that when things get smaller, some of their properties often change very seriously. A good example here is gold. If the gold particles brought into solution are made smaller and smaller, the color changes clearly from yellow to a strong red, although the substance remains chemically completely unchanged. This also works with other materials, and in addition to the size, the particle shape is also relevant. Obviously, new effects come to the fore here, which do not play a role in the macroscopic area. That is why nanotechnological structures continue to amaze with surprising properties. The task of nanotechnology is to make it technically usable for people. The possibilities for this are immense.