Editorial Feature

Nanotechnology and the Transportation Industry

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Nanotechnology will have an effect in all fields of transportation, offering a wide range of tools to develop the system for the 21st century. For instance, advancements in nanotechnology can help in making carbon-based fibers that are 100 times stronger than steel, with just one-sixth the weight.

The Benefits of Advanced Materials

Advanced materials ensure lower failure rates and longer service life. Among the major applications are nanocoating of metallic surfaces to realize low friction, super-hardening, and better corrosion protection. Some others are “smart” materials that track and evaluate their own status and fix any defects caused by fire, fatigue, etc.; and “tailored” materials for vehicles and infrastructure.

Faster, safer, and cheaper transportation can be realized with innovative materials, specifically, those designed with materials of nanoscale dimensions to have excellent properties (for example, lighter and stronger).

The Benefits of Advanced Communications

Cutting-edge communications increase the advantages of smart transportation systems and prevent the need for some travel altogether; and sensors constantly track the performance and condition of infrastructure, including roads and bridges. These include:

  • Novel materials that allow ultra-miniaturization of space equipment and systems, including the development of “smart” probes and sensors. Applications include advanced aircraft avionics, low-power, radiation-hardened computing systems meant for autonomous space vehicles, and economical supersonic aircraft.
  • Reduced use of transportation energy and its environmental impact. Applications include carbon-based nanostructures that act as “hydrogen supersponges” in vehicle fuel cells, and nanoparticle-reinforced materials that substitute metallic components in cars. Few others are nanosensors to trigger traps for pollutants and track vehicle emissions, and substitution of carbon black in tires with nanoparticles of inorganic polymers or clays, leading to wear-resistant and eco-friendly tires.

Improvement in Public Safety

Such applications may comprise biological and chemical weapon detectors at airports; glare-resistant, nano-reinforced windows and windshields for cars; intelligent sensors for collision avoidance in vehicles; and sensors that track the structural integrity of rail tracks. These include:

  • Innovative photonic nanodevices that can substitute the costly and bulky radio frequency transmission equipment onboard satellites, ships, or aircraft, or be leveraged for low-cost remote control of automobiles
  • Enhanced catalysts that may either decrease or remove the emission of pollutants resulting from engines

Nanotechnology Underpinning Developments in the Automotive Industry

Nanotechnology is supporting advances in the automotive sector in several areas. This sector is the leading user of sensors and components for advanced built-in compact systems, and MEMS have been a major driver in many of the currently available sophisticated safety systems.

At present, MEMS are utilized in a couple of regular automotive applications—the manifold air pressure sensor, or MAP sensor, which was initially utilized in the late 1970s, and the air bag accelerometer, which initially went small tech in the early 1990s.

It is believed that overall automotive sales of silicon accelerometers will increase from £192 million in 2000 to £364 million in 2005 (as per www.strategyanalytics.com). In 2000, the global MST market (including MEMS) for automotive applications was £725 million, and this is likely to increase to £800 million by 2004 (as per NEXUS/Roger Grace Associates).

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