Splitting water

This image shows two electrodes connected via an external voltage source splitting water into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). The illuminated silicon electrode (left) uses light energy to assist in the water-splitting process and is protected from the surrounding electrolyte by a 2-nm film of nickel.
You can spit water but you can also split water.  The splitting of water is important because when you split H2O you get two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen.  Both are important and hydrogen can be used as a fuel.  Unlike solar cells they don't require sunshine and can be used in places not considered to be sunny enough to efficiently generate energy from solar cells.  There have been lots of fuel cells based upon splitting up water and you can even reverse the process to generate clean water from hydrogen and oxygen.  The group at Stanford University have used silicon a material also used in solar cells.  They coated the electrodes with nickel to help improve the process and lower the cost. 

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another blood sucker

Tape, glue, staples.  No not a variation on rock, paper, scissors, this is the way that doctors hold things in place in your body.  Inspired by those fun loving parasites that attach in your digestive organs and hold on while they eat, scientists at Brigham Women's Hospital have engineered tiny needles based upon the way that parasites attach to the intestines.  The needles swell when they are exposed to water and then hold on.  This approach is 3-5 times better than surgical tape and could be used to attach patches that deliver different medicines.  Ouch, it might hurt to remove it though

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Does it come in different colors?

Science even when it is serious is kind of funny.  Looking at things on the nanometer-scale is a problem and requires very powerful microscopes.  Some of these microscopes that use electrons instead of light are able to see very small things but also usually kill anything that it 'sees'.  Basically the electron beam dries out the cells and leaves those critters dead.  Scientists at the Japan Science and Technology Agency have devised a clever solution---coat the living thing that you want to see in a polymer suit.  These nanosuits are made of a polymer and some detergent but it is flexible and protects the critter while it is being zapped with electrons. Because the nanosuit is polymerized right on the critter, it is a nice custom fit. Oh and does it come in colors?  of course not because at the nanometer-scale there is no color.

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Suck it up

Sometimes it is rocket science and other times it isn't.  How to get rid of toxic stuff in the blood?  Suck it up using nanosponges.  Scientists at the University of California in San Diego have made tiny sponges---so small about 3000 can fit into a blood cell.  These nanosponges suck up molecules that are toxic because they form pores membranes.  Bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus produce these toxin and disease like toxic shock syndrome.  A bit too soon to get a nanosponge treatment but the idea is exciting.
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For flying fleas to far off galaxies

Smaller is better, if you are a nanotechnologist.  So the challenge is to make things smaller and smaller.  Sometimes it is useful, other times it is for fun.  Like the smallest American flag, or the smallest space ship!  Right a space ship.  One printed using a high resolution 3D printer.  Scientists at the University of Austria have used a 3D printer to make a tiny space ship (and a tiny race car) using a lithographic printing technique that builds things up on a layer by layer basis.  The space ship was about 100,000 nanometers or about the width of a hair.  It took only 50 seconds to make.  Does it fly? Not on its own but it is still cool to see.
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Lighter than a butterfly

Nanotechnology is all about making unique useful materials.  Now the worlds lightest material has been recorded.  According to these scientists the material a carbon aerogel, if it were the size of a human body it would be less than 0.5 ounces.   So light a glob of it can dance on the tip of a flower!  Being lightweight isn't always great but it is if the material is strong and durable.  This carbon aerogel stuff can also absorb 900 times its weight in liquid.  How is it made?  The process is more or less the freeze drying of carbon nanotubes and graphene. 

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Little blood sucker

Usually if you need to have your blood tested it means going to a doctor's office having some blood drawn and then waiting a while---the blood is sent to a central laboratory and then the results come back in a few days or so.  But imagine if you had a gizmo that was inserted under your skin and tested your blood sending out the results wirelessly.  'too much cholesterol, not enough vitamin B!' and then you could eat right or exercise more.  Scientists at the EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne--a great research institution in Switzerland) have developed a tiny device to do just that.  The sensor is very small and it receives its power from another part of the device that is outside of your skin (think how a cordless toothbrush is charged).  The results are then sent by Bluetooth to a doctors computer where the results can be interpreted. 

Smaller and smaller

What is the smallest thing you can think of?  an electron, a quark? Well now what is the smallest thing you can make?  The answer is complicated but one thing you can say is that the smallest piece of a hard drive is about 10 nanometers.  That is 10-one billionth of a meter.  If you take your average hair and slice it along its width 10,000 times you get 10 nanometers.  How about the other way of thinking about it....you need only 50 atoms to make something that is 10 nanometers.  Engineers at HGST, a part of Western Digital (you might even have one of their hard drives in your computer) have made 10 nanometer magnetic islands which can be used for data storage.  Why is this important? It means you can pack much more data in the same size drive.  To make these 10 nanometer magnetic islands, the HGST engineers used 'self-assembling' molecules and nanoimprinting techniques.
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Strut like a peacock

Color is all about the wavelength of light that comes off an object.  A chemical, a pigment called anthocyanin is what makes an apple red.  But sometimes an object doesn't have a particular color because of pigment.  You can also make something appear to have color using physical structures that are on the nanometer scale.  If you have a bunch of ridges that are spaced out about 600 nanometers or so, then red light will be diffracted and the object will appear 'red'.  Peacocks and those blue morpho butterflies have color not because of pigments but because of tiny structures that diffract just certain wavelengths of light.  The problem is that the color produced by these ridges is very particular about the angle that you view them at.  Now scientists are making displays that show color but at less sensitive to the angle at which they are viewed.  These new types of structures are less sensitive to the angle at which they are viewed.  They hold promise for a new generation of displays that won't involve pigments but just these tiny ridges.
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All from the tip of a pencil

Like the fashion industry, nanotechnology has the latest hottest material.  These days for the fashion industry it might be stretch denim but for nanoscale science and engineering it is graphene, a material that has great potential for a variety of electronic applications.  Graphene? sounds like graphite, the stuff that is found in pencils?  Sort of?  Graphene like graphite is made of carbon, but graphene is made only of carbon and only one atom thick.  The carbon atoms are arranged where each carbon atom is bound to three other carbon atoms the same way they are bonded in carbon nanotubes or buckyballs.  Scientists who worked on graphene won the Nobel Prize in 2010.  Because graphene is a semiconductor it has lots of potential in electronics and because it is only a single atom think, sheets of it can be used to make flexible electronics. 
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Sometimes the world's tiniest isn't the best

Tomorrow is Valentine's day and just in time is the "world's tiniest" cupid.  Cupid is the little guy who flies around and shoots arrows into folks and makes them fall in love.  Now scientists at Brigham Young University have made a tiny cupid out of carbon nanotubes.  Just a few hundred nanometers across, cupid appears to have launched his nano arrow.  Now the love of your life can be smitten by a nano-gesture of your affection.  Best you also send flowers or a box of chocolate.

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This stuff resists everything

Some materials just hate water.  They are known as hydrophobic.  Superhydrophobic means they really hate water.  Now there is a new class of materials that really hate everything.  These are superomniphobic.  Scientists at the University of Michigan have made a material that not only repels water but repels oils, solvents and other liquids.  It is so repellant that these liquids literally bounce off the surface.  So what do you do with these superomniphobic materials.  In theory they should resist any kinds of stains, not just those from foods that are water based.  Not quite ready for prime-time, the materials are easily damaged by mechanical treatments like abrasions.  But someday we might not have to worry about getting that stain on our shirt right before a big event.  Look below at a series of pictures showing a liquid bouncing off a superomniphobic surface

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Magic cotton

Cotton is one of those materials that everyone takes for granted.  What's nano about that?  Scientists from Eindoven University (in the Netherlands) have treated cotton with a special polymer that makes the cotton magical.  At room temperature the polymer-treated cotton will hold 340% of its weight in water.  Water collected from mist and other places.  Heat it up and releases the water, pure enough to drink (or water plants).  What is great is that it can be used over and over again to gather water and then distribute it. Cotton is grown around the world and treating it with this magical polymer isn't too high tech, meaning that it might be useful technology for developing countries to help produce clean water. 

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snail teeth and solar cells

Nature is used as a source of inspiration for a lot of nanometer-scale things that we make.  Scientists will examine something in nature, figure out how it works and then try to make something similar.  The idea is that a zillion years of evolution has selected for stuff that works very well.  So it might be the pads on the foot of a gecko or the wings of a butterfly.  Now snail teeth are the latest bit of nature to be examined.  Scientists at University of California-Riverside have examined the teeth of a pretty big snail.  They discovered this conveyor belt structure with 80 rows of teeth.  How the teeth are made in part from inorganic material might provide clues as to how to make more efficient solar cells and batteries.