by Chris Exstrom, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska at Kearney
Spray-on solar paint for homes and nano-sensors in the bloodstream for early detection of disease might sound a bit far out, but these are just two ways in which Americans will benefit from nanoscale inks by 2034.
In the area of solar power, today’s prototypes of flexible solar films on backpacks and tents are just the tip of the iceberg. By 2034, “nano-inks” only a few atoms thick will be able to be integrated into pigments, glass and plastic, turning any surface imaginable into a solar power generator. There will no longer be any need to plug-in to recharge batteries, you could simply put the device in the sun to recharge. Couple this technology with 3-D printing technologies of the future, and the possibilities are endless. Nano-inks could even channel “waste heat” generated by computers, automobiles, and machinery into more energy from within rather than using energy from external sources.
By 2034, nano-inks will be routine in preventative medicine. For instance, certain metal nanoparticles interact with light or electromagnetic fields to create proximity sensors on a microscopic level that could enhance the resolution of today’s MRI scans. And, with continued investment, current research will lead to the development of nanoscale integrated laboratory sensors to be deployed inside the body. Consisting of thousands of individual nanoparticles, each functionalized to detect a different type of virus, bacterium, or genetic marker, the nanosensors will utilize an intricate nanofluidic channel network to draw blood or serum samples for instantaneous analysis. The notion of early detection will be completely redefined as these nanosensors could be implanted in a blood vessel to continuously monitor for viral and bacterial diseases, as well as the presence of proteins and hormones that signify the presence of cancers or genetic disorders with real-time results sent daily or weekly to mobile devices.
The potential implications of nano-inks for energy and human health are huge and not all that far off. The work that has been done over the past decade, for instance, by chemists and engineers at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to create better photovoltaic energy cells and sensors is one piece of the puzzle. However, for these visions of 2034 to come true, continued federal investments in STEM education and nanoscience research are vital. Just as those of us working in this field today are building on the work of others who came before us, today’s K-12, college, and graduate students will build on our work for the future.
Chris Exstrom is Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Science/Math Education program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he conducts research on non-vacuum preparation methods of semiconductor and noble metal nanocrystalline materials for solar cell and biomedical sensor electronics applications. His research has been supported by the U. S. Department of Energy, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other sources.