Progress on the head of a pin

February 24, 2006

Nanoscience, for good or ill, has taken hold of the imagination of the popular media. But over the past decade, it has spread even deeper roots across the scientific community such that few realms of science now remain untouched by it. Governments and funding agencies around the world have made, and continue to make, huge investments in nanoscience in order to explore the potential benefits of this old and yet new subject.

Chemistry has a central role in nanoscience since it provides the tools to manipulate matter from a starting point of atoms and molecules, but when my colleagues and I were writing a lecture course at Cambridge University for final-year chemistry undergraduates in 2000, we found that although there were numerous books on nanoscience written for a general audience, there was nothing for chemists.

Nanochemistry by Geoffrey Ozin and Andre Arsenault modestly claims its place as the first book to be published on nanochemistry. It is aimed first and foremost at chemists, and Ozin and Arsenault assume from the outset that readers are happy to read the full names of molecules without recourse to diagrams. Yet materials scientists and physicists will surely benefit from the book as well.

The objective of this book is to present an overview of how chemistry has been used in the preparation of novel nanoscale materials. The vision that the authors wish to portray is that - starting with molecules and by use of a little judicious placement - it is or will be possible to build systems that will assemble themselves into functional entities ranging in size from nanometres to millimetres. A chapter is given to each of the major classes of nanomaterials and their manner of preparation. All the basic ideas of nanochemistry are introduced. Chemical patterning, soft lithography and nanoscale writing are reviewed first, followed by a lengthy chapter on nanoscale rods and wires.

The first half of the book sets up the reader for an excellent presentation of the ways nanoscale objects can assemble and themselves control the assembly of larger, more complex systems, taking inspiration from porous solids and biomaterials.

Each chapter concludes with a list of questions to stimulate thought or allow an instructor to evaluate students' learning. There is an excellent bibliography to which I found myself constantly turning, repeatedly tempted to explore avenues I had previously overlooked. The authors try to be comprehensive and uniformly enthusiastic in their presentation. At places a little more critique would have been useful, since with the passage of time only a small fraction of the material presented here will prove useful. Readers are left to form their own value judgments.

In my view, this book is most suitable for graduate students and researchers. It is not, despite the authors' declared intention, a textbook for undergraduates. Nanoscience is taught as a distinct subject in the final year of most undergraduate degrees. This subject cannot be comprehended without an understanding of what makes "nano" unique or without knowledge of the technologies and techniques that make nanoscience feasible.

Ozin and Arsenault assume that readers are already thoroughly conversant with these basics of the subject. I would recommend that a reader first study recent textbooks such as Nanoscale Assembly Chemical Techniques (edited by Wilhelm Huck) or Nanoscale Science and Technology (by Robert Kelsall, Ian Hamley and Mark Geoghegan). They will then be well equipped to enjoy what Ozin and Arsenault have written.

The book contains little on the sister subject of bio-nanotechnology apart from the chapter on biomaterials. Perhaps because bio-nanotechnology lies outside the general aims of the book, this chapter, necessarily short, is one that approaches most closely the format of a textbook. It is an excellent chapter and certainly one that I would recommend to undergraduates.

In a part of nanoscience cursed by wildly overoptimistic promises, it is heartening to see such measured judgment. Nano-robots are dismissed in a sentence. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the vast majority of practitioners of nanoscience regard K. Eric Drexler's vision of nanomachines as an irrelevance and a distraction. Nanoscience has moved on.

It would be surprising if a book of this breadth was without error.

The one glaring mistake I noted is the claim made in the first chapter and repeated in the introduction of chapter two, that a rubber stamp could be used to "create structures with lateral dimensions from 5nm to 500mm".

Later in the text, the authors note more accurately that the minimum dimension is ca 50nm (and achieving this was not an easy task). In a subject where size matters, the authors should have got this important fact right.

Costing less than 1p per page and at more than 600 pages long, this book is well worth buying. It is a kaleidoscopic compendium of the achievements of chemists working with materials scientists and physicists.

Trevor Rayment is professor of physical chemistry, Birmingham University.

Nanochemistry: A Chemical Approach to Nanomaterials. First Edition

Author - Geoffrey A. Ozin and André Arsenault
Publisher - RSC Publishing
Pages - 628
Price - £39.95
ISBN - 0 85404 664 X

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