As the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale, nanotechnology is finding its way into many industries and a wide range of applications. Its promise of lightweight materials and improved efficiency makes it a particularly ideal match for the aviation industry, where both fuel consumption and carbon emissions are impacted by every extra ounce in flight.
Aircraft construction, for instance, is benefitting from nanotech on a number of levels. Nanostructured metals with superior strength and corrosion-resistance can be employed in aircraft construction. Polymers used in aircraft components can be enhanced with materials such as carbon nanotubes, nanoclays and nanofibers, where their weight-to-strength ratio and enhanced fire and vibration resistance are solid assets. Nanocoatings can be applied to help mechanical components withstand the friction of turbulence, and to decrease ice formation on aircraft surfaces.
There are also less direct benefits to employing nanotech in construction, such as a reduction in the energy needed for manufacturing. As an example, wrap-around carbon nanotube film can stimulate multiple polymer layers to solidify into a composite, eliminating the need for high temperature heating in large industrial ovens.
Nanotech can also reduce the costs of inspections and repairs, which are no small matter in the aviation industry. Aircraft parts are routinely subjected to varying loads, which can lead to cracks in high-stress areas and, ultimately, structural failure. It is now possible to cost-effectively print large quantities of very-fine sensors on flexible rolls of plastic, enabling efficient monitoring for structural defects. As for addressing those defects, nanoparticles dispersed throughout a material can migrate to fill in cracks – effectively creating a “self-healing” property. And research points to the eventual possibility of creating “perfect” defect-free materials which are far less vulnerable to cracking than their conventional counterparts.
Applications for the ever-expanding field of nanoscience extend beyond the basic building blocks of airplanes, as well. Lubricants and fuels with nano additives can reduce engine heat and friction, lower emissions and improve overall efficiency. Nanocoatings can shield electronic displays and communication components from interference. Many airplane cabin filters already employ fiber material with nanoscale pores to trap larger particles – a simple mechanical filtration principle made much more robust by the involvement of nanoscience. Research also suggests that engineered water nanodroplets can be used to kill airborne pathogens.
There’s also the possibility of improving airline security. Development of a “nano-nose” for instance, has been linked to sniffing out everything from pathogens in the food supply chain to biomarkers for early-stage lung cancer. Bombs, gun powder and other dangerous chemicals may also be detectable by such technology. And in the related area of air-based defense, research has shown the way to radar-absorbing paint that could lend stealth invisibility to any airplane.
Yet perhaps the most promising aspect of nanotech incorporation into aviation is the possibility for spillover into other fields, much like the well-known “spinoff technologies” that got their start through NASA’s work on space exploration – things like satellite television, memory foam, scratch-resistant lenses and the like. Although technology is sometimes said to “make the world smaller,” the smallest of worlds might just play a central role in making the impact of technology that much bigger.