Micro- and nanoporous materials can widely be found in nature, be it zeolite minerals, cell membranes, or diatom skeletons. Researchers are developing artificial analogues of such materials, i.e. nanoporous materials, for industrial applications in areas such as catalysis, water purification, environmental clean-up, molecular separation and proton exchange membranes for fuel cells. Manufacturing nanosieves with straight nanopores is still challenging, especially when the pore size is less than 10 nm. Researchers in Korea have now developed a novel material and fabrication technique that allows easy fabrication of nanosieves with sub-10 nm nanopores with straight pore-structure. With it, controlling the pore size from sub-nm to 5 nm becomes very easy.
Among various technologies, reverse osmosis membranes have been widely used for water reclamation. However, external energy required and high operational pressure used make reverse osmosis membrane water reclamation processes energy intensive - not exactly an advantage given the rising cost of energy and the negative climate impact of fossil fuels. Today, forward osmosis is a well-recognized osmotic process for producing clean water with a bright future as it uses a natural phenomenon and does not require any operational pressure hence it saves large amount of energy compared with reverse osmosis process. Researchers now describe a novel forward osmosis membrane that presents remarkable properties superior over conventional membrane support layers.
One of the problems in modern separation science and technology is the challenge of separating gaseous mixtures that consist of very similar particles, for example, hydrogen isotope mixtures; mixtures of noble gases; etc. The problem arises because small particles such as hydrogen isotopes share similar size and shape (only their molecular mass is different). While this problem can be technically solved, currently available separation methods such as thermal diffusion, cryogenic distillation, and centrifugation, tend to be time and energy intensive. New theoretical work now shows that narrow carbon nanotubes (CNTs) seem to be an attractive alternative. By using CNTs as nanoporous molecular sieves, the separation of parahydrogen molecules from mixtures of classical particles at cryogenic temperatures seems to be possible.
One possible option for reducing CO2 emissions from power plants is to capture them before they hit the atmosphere and store the gas underground. This technique is called Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage. However, before CO2 can be stored, it must be separated from the other waste gases resulting from combustion or industrial processes. Most current methods used for this type of filtration are expensive and require the use of chemicals. Nanotechnology techniques to fabricate nanoscale thin membranes could lead to new membrane technology that could change that.
Current membranes are in many cases not competitive for large scale applications, because their permeance for carbon dioxide is not high enough. Researchers in Germany have now reported the development and manufacturing of nanometric thin film membranes with record performance.
Various nanotechnologies are being researched for applications in water treatment because the removal of bacteria and other organisms from water is an extremely important process, not only for drinking and sanitation but also industrially as biofouling is a commonplace and serious problem. In what could be developed as a a cheap point-of-use water filter for deactivating pathogens in water, or as a new component to be integrated into existing filtration systems to kill microorganisms which cause biofouling in downstream filters, researchers have now demonstrated a textile based device for the high speed electrical sterilization of water. They came up with a new strategy for taking advantage of silver nanowires' and carbon nanotubes' unique ability to form complex multiscale coatings on cotton to produce an electrically conducting and high surface area device for the active, high-throughput inactivation of bacteria in water.
Delivering healthy proteins directly into human cells to replace malfunctioning proteins is considered one of the most direct and safe approaches for treating diseases. Controlled and long-term protein drug delivery has also been considered as one of the most promising biomedical applications of nanotechnology. So far, though, the effectiveness of protein therapy has been limited by low delivery efficiency and the poor stability of proteins, which are frequently broken down and digested by cells' protease enzymes before they reach their intended target. This not only makes the drugs ineffective, it can also cause unpredictable side effects such as inflammation, toxicity, and immune responses. The best way for the delivery of protein drugs without denaturation might be possible by exploiting the passive diffusion through a membrane without physical and chemical stresses. This can be achieved when pore sizes in a membrane are controlled to satisfy the single-file diffusion condition of protein drugs.
Ultrathin nanosieves with a thickness smaller than the size of the pores are especially advantageous for applications in materials separation since they result in an increase of flow across the nanosieve. Separation of complex biological fluids can particularly benefit from novel, chemically functionalized nanosieves, since many bioanalytical problems in proteomics or medical diagnostics cannot be solved with conventional separation technologies. Researchers in Germany have now fabricated chemically functionalized nanosieves with a thickness of only 1 nm - the thinnest free-standing nanosieve membranes that have been reported so far. The size of the nanoholes in the membranes can be flexibly adjusted down to 30 nm by choosing appropriate conditions for lithography.
Advanced material engineering techniques can structure surfaces that allow dynamic tuning of their wettability all the way from superhydrophobic (i.e. repelling) behavior to almost complete wetting (i.e. superhydrophilic or strongly absorbing) - but these surfaces only work with high-surface-tension liquids. Almost all organic liquids that are ubiquitous in human environment such as oils, solvents, detergents, etc. have fairly low surface tensions and thus readily wet even superhydrophobic surfaces. In a previous Spotlight we reported how researchers have been creating surfaces that would extend superhydrophobic behavior to all liquids, no matter what the surface tension. New work coming out of MIT now describes a novel nanostructures membrane that can be switched between superhydrophilic and superhydrophobic behavior on demand. Think of it as an 'oil spill clean-up paper towel' that absorbs only the oil but not the water. Given the global scale of severe water pollution arising from oil spills and industrial organic pollutants, this nanomaterial may prove particularly useful in the design of recyclable absorbents with significant environmental impact.