Advances in Materials Science: Can Nanomaterials Help Save America’s Dying Infrastructure?

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materials science nanomaterials
America’s infrastructure is in need of help. Nanomaterials could become a major player in repairing it.
Image Source: Flickr CC user Daniel Oines

When you think of the word infrastructure, perhaps an image of a road, bridge or famous building comes to mind; perhaps even an image containing all three. Compared with other countries around the world, Americans tend to think that our own basic physical and organizational structures are among the best. We have well-paved roads, safe buildings and some of the world’s most imposing skyscrapers. Except…our infrastructure is not great — in fact, it is not even good. According to a survey conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers, if one were to grade various aspects of infrastructure such as transit, ports, aviation, levees, roads and schools, for example, America’s total G.P.A. would be a dismal D+1. In other words, as journalist Bill Bradley wrote in an article for Vice Magazine, “America is literally falling apart around us” though “public spending on infrastructure is at its lowest since 1947.”2 For materials science firms interested in helping to build the infrastructure that will support America’s future, how can they ensure longevity, durability and excellence in their materials? Is there any hope to raise America’s infrastructure G.P.A.?

Nanomaterials as the Future of American Infrastructure

To change America’s infrastructure grades, construction materials manufacturers will have to think small. In particular, they should begin to focus on the development and use of nanomaterials. As described by Dr. Pedro Alvarez, a scientist at Rice University, “Nanomaterials likely will have a greater impact on the construction industry than any other sector of the economy, except biomedical and electronics applications. Certain nanomaterials can improve the strength of concrete, serve as self-cleaning and self-sanitizing coatings, and provide many other construction benefits.”3 Beyond the applications mentioned, nanomaterials can also be used as a means of monitoring defects or general wear and tear4. In this way, nanomaterials will assist not only in the building of new infrastructure, but also its maintenance, hopefully preventing costly repairs later on.

Modifying, Selecting and Using Nanomaterials

But understanding and selecting nanomaterials or understanding which components or molecules to modify in order to strengthen or weaken interactions between atoms can be very tricky. In particular, nanomaterials describe technology that is one-billionth of a meter wide and familiar objects start to develop “odd properties” when nanosized5. For example, aluminum shredded into smaller and smaller pieces still behaves like an aluminum sheet. But when it is between 20 and 30 nanometers, the pieces begin to explode. Thus, predicting the types of nanomaterials to use for construction components is complicated by the difficulty of understanding how the laws of quantum mechanisms alter the function of materials when those laws become the most important factors governing material behavior. Furthermore, the costs of testing these materials could be prohibitive, while also wasting a significant amount of researchers’ time.

In order to improve the likelihood that appropriate nanomaterials are identified as well as the likelihood that a materials science firm can transform a nanomaterial into a viable component of the construction process, researchers and executives should consider BIOVIA Materials Studio 8.0, the newest iteration of BIOVIA’s complete modeling and simulation environment. Using the software, researchers interested in developing nanomaterials can use the virtual environment to uncover how a material’s atomic and molecular structures affect its properties. In this way, before complicated nanomaterials are synthesized or failed attempts are discarded (after millions of dollars are already spent), researchers can accelerate innovation by employing a cost-effective strategy for determining the likelihood that certain nanomaterials are durable or can reflect certain rays of light, for example. BIOVIA’s scientific experts can also provide support and their own expertise in helping companies determine the best types of nanomaterials to use for their desired market.

As with other BIOVIA products that improve efficiency and collaboration, Materials Studio hopes to bring researchers from “bench to bridge,” by enabling them to construct, manipulate and share their models of nanomaterials. To determine how BIOVIA Materials Studio can support your own work in the field of materials science, please contact us today.

  1. “Infrastructure Is America’s Backbone,” 2013, http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/
  2. “America’s Infrastructure Is Slowly Falling Apart,” February 2, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/america-is-collapsing-a-brief-look-at-the-us-infrastructure-meltdown-130
  3. “Future Cities,” September 7, 2010, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/podcasts/globalchallenges/future/future-cities-nanotechnology-promises-more-sustainable-buildings-bridges-and-other-structures.html
  4. “Nanocoating to help monitor safety of aircraft, bridges,” May 20, 2009, http://www.gizmag.com/nanocoating-infrastructure-monitoring/11758/
  5. “Nanotechnology’s Big Future,” June 2006, http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/nanotechnology.html

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