A Brief History and a Look into the Future of Nanotechnology & Mechanical Engineering

Mechanical engineering is the type of engineering that specializes in the design, construction, and use of machines. It is the kind of engineering that needs to be cognizant of science, chemistry and other kinds of engineering. Mechanical engineering also enjoys some of the highest salaries of any job in the world, from starting salary to senior salary. It involves the design principles of things at a smaller scale, and alternatively at a humongous scale. In this analysis of mechanical engineering, the nanoscale and its influence it has had on the mechanical engineering industry will be investigated. Could nanotechnology completely change the world of mechanical engineering as we know it?

It was December 2003. George W. Bush signed off on the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. The act gave engineers access to billions of dollars for research and development into nanotechnology. Since then, more and more breakthroughs have been made and now nanomaterials are set to change the world. In 2008, the Global Summit on the Future of Mechanical Engineering is held. Engineers from all corners of the world came together to set their sights on the future of mechanical engineering, from the year 2008, up to the year 2028. The summit concluded with one big takeaway; nanotechnology would become one of the most important technologies that would alter mechanical engineering and the world. An excerpt from the report reads: “Mechanical engineers over the next two decades will be called upon to develop technologies that foster a cleaner, healthier, safer, and sustainable global environment.”

Furthermore, The President of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, at the time, said: “The flow of technology from tiny and ‘mega-scale’ systems will be the big story of the twenty-first century.” Nanotechnologies are already assisting mechanical engineers in creating more efficient solar cells, drug delivery for biomedical purposes through mechanical structures and robots and creating terabyte data chips the size of a human thumbnail. Nanotechnology is slowly changing engineering. It brings different sciences and engineering practices together.

Nanotechnology has been embraced by mechanical engineering to the point where they have been fused together to become ‘nanomechanics’. Nanomechanics brings together the principles of classical mechanics and applies it to the nanoscale. According to the book Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems, classical mechanics means that “every motion is the inevitable consequence of the conditions prior to motion.” In layman’s terms, every motion a mechanical system is going to make can be measured and predicted. The engineers then have to consider the motions a system would make at a billionth of a meter, to convert it into the nanoscale. The result is a nano-motion. Nano-motions observe the oscillating frequencies of an object. The higher frequency oscillations present unique opportunities for nanotechnologies, and especially for mechanical engineering. Nanomechanics is the observation, measurement, and exertion of forces at a molecular level.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Mechanical Engineering concerns themselves with hybrid materials and how strong they are in their natural mechanical strength, at their molecular level. Their latest research has seen them working with nanotechnology and coal gasification. With the pressure on governments and industrial companies to cut down on emissions, a gap in the market for novel technologies to cut emissions has been presented to engineers. The International Energy Agency has said despite the international pressures, global coal-fired power generation will continue and continue to produce harmful emissions. Therefore, the MIT mechanical engineering researchers went to work on producing more efficient electricity produced from coal, using nanotechnology. Working with the ultra-fine geochemistry and nano-compounds in coal gasification, the team was able to extract “burnable gaseous fuel” from pulverized coal instead of actually burning the coal. If no burning is involved, fewer pollutants are created. The study shows that the ‘steaming’ method with coal is both safer for the environment and produces two times the electricity that normal coal would produce.

Another nanomaterial that is changing the world of mechanical engineering is graphene. Graphene was discovered in 2004 and is regarded to be the thinnest and lightest compound ever discovered; it is only one atom thick. It is also the strongest compound known to man. Billions of dollars are going into the research and development of graphene. The nanomaterial is currently being used in electronics, biological engineering, filtration, energy storage and the development of strong and non-heavy materials. Between 2005 to 2014, twenty-five thousand patent applications were registered in graphene development, in the United Kingdom alone, according to the UK Intellectual Property Office.

Mechanical engineers see the future of using the compound because of its perfect thermal management, design flexibility and strength. Graphene’s heat transfer is also something that mechanical engineers want to tap into. A company named BGT Materials were reportedly working on a lightbulb that utilizes graphene to transfer heat a light-emitting diode (LED), thereby improving its efficiency.

The Engineering Institute of Technology is hosting a three-month certificate course that gives prospective engineers, artisans or technologists the basics of mechanical engineering. The Professional Certificate of Competency in Mechanical Engineering will cover 12 modules that outline the essentials someone needs to get into mechanical engineering. It will cover some of the design and manufacturing principles, starting at the small - like nano - and moving on to larger devices like machine tools and power plants. Looking at the design flexibility of mechanical objects from nano all the way up to mega-systems is something that every mechanical engineer should be proficient in, in the modern context of mechanical engineering.

Works Cited
Rogers, Ben, Jesse Adams, and Sumita Pennathur. Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems. Boca Raton: CRC, 2011. Print.
Massachusetts Insitute of Technology. MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering . http://meche.mit.edu/