Cutting-edge nanotechnology comes home

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | June 23, 2014

If you're not a scientist or engineer, you might not know about nanotechnology -- the study, engineering, and manufacture of materials and products from small particles. How small? A nanometer measures only one billionth of a meter -- less than half the diameter of a strand of human DNA.

Nanotechnology is exciting because at that size -- typically just a few atoms-worth -- some materials can exhibit physical and chemical properties that are not present on a larger scale, such as exceptional strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, and self-repair.

Nanotechnology: ancient history?

Examples of nanotechnology exist from as early as the first millennium forward: opaque glass, stained glass, and ceramic glazes. Damascus swords consisted of nanotubes and nanowires. Nanoparticles of gold and other metal oxides gave stained glass windows their rich coloration and even purified the air when they were activated by sunlight -- a process known as photocatalysis.

Of course, craftsmen back then knew nothing of nanotechnology. They learned how to alter the composition of certain materials through the trial and error of working with them. It wasn't until the end of the last century with the aid of modern scientific equipment that we discovered the nanoparticles these craftsmen harnessed, yet never knew existed.

Modern nanotech: what's it to you?

Nanotechnology as we know it really got underway in the 1980s with the development of powerful microscopes that allowed scientists to discover nanoparticles -- things to which they gave quirky names -- including quantum dots, fullerenes (or bucky balls), and nanotubes. Engineers began using these and other nanoparticles to structure materials with new or "super" properties that must have seemed magical to the layman.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, nanotechnology has created advancements in products that many consumers have quickly adopted. You probably use some of these often, if not daily:

  • Clear, lightweight sunscreens
  • Deep-penetrating cosmetics
  • Wrinkle- and stain-resistant fabrics
  • Golf balls that fly straighter
  • Tennis rackets with faster rebound
  • Scratch-resistant glass coatings
  • Faster recharging batteries

By now you may have even come to expect the same enhanced level of performance from all products in similar categories.

Nanotechnology and building materials

While many of the best-known, nanotech commercial products up to now have been developed for consumers or for use in medical applications, nano-particles have also been shown to improve the properties of building materials:

  • Strength. Adding only 1 percent of carbon nanotubes to concrete can increase its tensile strength by 500 percent.
  • Self-repair. Those same carbon nanotubes added to concrete prevent large cracks from forming and self-heal any small cracks when water contacts them.
  • Self-cleaning. PPG Industries, Inc, which manufactures glass for American-made replacement windows, offers self-cleaning SunClean® glass in addition to its other increasingly popular nanotech glass coatings such as low-e, mar-resistant, and UV-filtering glass.
  • Fire-resistance. Nanotechnology engineers can already make window glass fire-resistant, but they must also improve its heat resistance before a fire-resistant glass can actually be produced and marketed commercially.

Research takes time, but products that use nanotech thin films and coatings like the various PPG glass applications have begun to creep into the home services arena. Here are a couple of amazingly useful materials that are cutting edge:

FENIX NTM® laminate countertops and cabinetry

When FENIX NTM® high-pressure laminate (HPL) appeared at EuroCucina 2014, it was the talk of the European kitchen design show, according to attendee Mike Hetherman, whose building material company will be distributing it in the U.S.

Nanotech counters
Photo credit to Arpa Internazionale

This innovative nanotech material by Italian HPL manufacturer, Arpa Internazionale, can be used not only for horizontal countertops and vanities but also for vertical applications like cabinetry and shelving.

FENIX NTM® -- the "NTM" stands for nanotech matte, a super matte finish -- features a top sheet with a "phenomenal life-cycle," says Hetherman, and a long list of benefits. Hetherman says FENIX was originally developed by Arpa's sister company as a protective top sheet for exteriors that are exposed to damaging pollution, but Arpa adapted the same technology to interior applications. The nanotech top sheet is bonded under high pressure to the same material Arpa uses for its regular laminate products, resulting in a product with enhanced capabilities.

The secret to the super matte surface is in the nanotech tips. No matter how smooth any surface feels or how shiny it looks, it consists of bumps you cannot see, yet the surface is "silky-smooth to the touch," says Hetherman, while consisting of all these nanotech tips pointing outward that trap light instead of reflecting it back out. "It [light] just dies in the material," he says, which Hetherman believes is a good thing. Reducing reflectivity cuts down on the excess glare you get with shiny countertops, and it actually improves home acoustics by reducing how much sound bounces around.

Those same tiny nano-tips resist all kinds of particles that come in contact with the counter's surface, meaning, Hetherman says, that it's also super hygienic and safe for food prep. It's received NSF certification for food safety and health. The material prevents dirt, germs, and even the oils from your fingers from accumulating. You can't even leave any fingerprints behind, so it's easy to keep clean. Best of all, if you scuff it, you can apply heat or friction by rubbing it, and the material will simply "heal" itself.

FN® Coatings for home air purification

What if you could paint your ceiling with a nanotech coating and then never worry about pet and cooking odors, smoke, dust mites, pollen, airborne viruses and bacteria, black mold spores -- even spiders lurking in ceiling corners? It's now possible.

Another nanotechnology advancement, FN® Coatings, promises to purify the air in your home as long as you have enough light, either from the sun or with a boost from an artificial UV light source.

According to the product brochure, "A tiny layer of FN® applied on the wall surface cleans the air of carcinogens, viruses, bacteria, mites, smoke, smells, allergens, and other dangerous pollutants." It also "inhibits mold and fungal growth…"

Developed by Jan Prochazka, Ph.D. and President of FN Nano Inc., the patented coating works on the principle of photocatalysis. Prochazka developed a formula for a special binder that allows light to react with the titanium dioxide (TiO2) in the coating and "burn up" or oxidize tiny particles of pollutants. Regular paint products, Prochazka explains, bind up the titanium dioxide with resins in the paint so that TiO2 cannot oxidize air impurities, even in the presence of light. TiO2 has been studied for many years, he added, and its safety to humans and pets is well-documented. It's in nearly every white product including foods like yogurt and bread.

One drawback of FN® Coatings for residential use, however, is that it must be applied over existing paint, and it leaves a white chalky residue that cannot be scrubbed. However, the best place for it is the ceiling, and once applied it almost never needs cleaning because any smoke, cooking oils, or other tiny particles that would normally soil your ceiling are oxidized on contact.

Lack of sufficient sunlight in your home can be another inhibitor for photocatalysis to occur. If your home has UV-filter coatings or film on the windows, you won't get the desired results. If that's the case, you must install sources of artificial UV light.

On the plus side, you can maintain clean air throughout your home without the need for special filters or air purification equipment that consumes power. The coatings can also be used outside to keep stucco facades and concrete free from the same type of deposits of dirt and microorganisms as indoors without harming the environment with chemical cleansers.

Despite the 30-plus-year history of nanotechnology, these are still the early days and many of these products could be a mere glimmer of what is to come. Nanotechnology has the potential to change the world as we know it in grand and positive ways, which in itself is a kind of magic.