Welcome Physics World  April 2020

Nanotechnology drives innovation

Maiken Mikkelsen in her lab. (Kara Manke)

Welcome to this Physics World Nanotechnology Briefing that celebrates how nanotechnology is playing an increasingly important role in applications as diverse as medicine, fire safety and quantum information.

Combining nanostructures with light has created the burgeoning field of nanophotonics. Maiken Mikkelsen and colleagues at Duke University have used plasmonic nanocubes to make an ultrafast thermal camera. A particle-accelerator-on-a-chip may seem like an unlikely application of nanophotonics, but Jelena Vučković’s team at Stanford University have created such a device, which uses laser light rather than radio waves to accelerate electrons to energies as high as 1 MeV.

From tiny accelerators to atom-sized sensors, Tim Taminiau and colleagues at Delft University of Technology have used individual atomic-scale defects in diamond as tiny nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. They measured the interactions between pairs of 27 defects to create a map of the defect locations in the diamond lattice – a technique that could be extended to study the structure of large molecules.

Some of the biomedical applications that you will find in these pages include a new plasmonic nanoprobe that monitors neural activity – developed by Ali Yanik and colleagues at the University of California Santa Cruz. Omar Farha’s team at Northwestern University, meanwhile, has used a nanoporous material to create a fabric that protects against chemical nerve agents.

Plastics pollution has been targeted by nanotechnologists. Researchers in the US, led by Kenneth Poeppelmeier and Massimiliano Delferro, have shown that the inclusion of platinum nanoparticles and perovskite nanotubes catalyse a reaction that makes it easier to extract hydrocarbons from waste plastic.

The nanotechnology revolution is being driven by talented researchers worldwide who have the scientific vision to make the connection between esoteric physics and practical applications. I profile Pablo Jarillo-Herrero of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose pioneering work on magic-angle graphene has opened up a new field of research called twistronics, which could lead to applications including photon detectors and quantum computers.

If you are looking for some career inspiration, we have an interview with Mar García Hernández of the Spanish National Research Council – who is on the executive board of the European Union’s Graphene Flagship and leads its Work Package Enabling Materials initiative. She explains how the discovery of graphene in 2004 resulted in a big change of direction in her career path.