There’s small, and then there’s nanoscale small. Defined as a billionth of a meter, the nanoscale – or nanoscopic scale – is used to measure atoms, particles and other components that are much too small to be viewed with the naked eye. But it’s more than just a measurement. Nanoscience represents an exciting and relatively new area of study that combines several facets of the scientific community, including engineering, chemistry, physics and biology, to further technology through large advancements of a very small nature.
For the professional engineer, a background in nanoscale science and engineering can be helpful whether you want to pursue a career specifically in nanoscience, or choose a more general engineering position. Many higher degree programs offer specifically tailored courses to prepare students for work in this area of expertise that is becoming increasingly applicable across a number of industrial fields.
What is nanoscale engineering?
As the name suggests, nanoscale engineering is a branch of engineering that occurs on the nanoscale. The word “nanoengineering” is often used synonymously with the more general term “nanotechnology,” but the former technically focuses more closely on the engineering aspects of the field, as opposed to the broader science that is encompassed by the latter.
According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the concepts and principles that led to the field of nanoscience first came to prominence in a paper titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” by renowned physicist Richard Feynman in 1959. Feynman’s paper discussed the possibility of controlling and manipulating the behavior of individual molecules and atoms. The term “nanotechnology” was coined for this process by Norio Taniguchi more than a decade later, and in 1981 a scanning tunneling microscope was developed that could view surfaces at the atomic level. It was this microscope that allowed for the development of the modern field of nanotechnology.
Focused on manipulating materials on an atomic level, nanoscale engineering uses a number of techniques to leverage this manipulation for industrial purposes. One is the patterning of materials, the process by which patterns are printed as guides on materials to deposit or remove substances on silicon wafers that are used in electronics and tech devices. This is often accomplished through photolithography, which exposes the wafer to certain lengths of light waves which react to the chemicals on the surface, leaving etchings.
In January 2016, a report by Markets and Markets projected that the patterning material market will be worth $3.86 billion by 2020. With such high demand, now is the time to learn more about the intersection between nanoengineering and materials.
Materials at the nanoscale
To put the nanoscale into perspective, the page of a book is about 100,000 nm thick, while a single human hair is only 40,000 nm thick. The scale is particularly important because it is the size at which fluctuations in the properties of individual particles significantly affect the behavior of the system. That means that properties of materials can be affected in a powerful way when manipulated at this level, which opens a wide array of applications for engineers who are looking for new ways to design and leverage materials to increase their uses in industry.
To this end, in nanoengineering, you’ll spend time studying the properties of nanoparticles to determine the best and most efficient ways to alter materials on the atomic level. Depending on your position, you’ll also dedicate time to creating incredibly tiny pieces of technology that are increasingly used in almost every area of daily life. It’s an extremely important field that offers opportunities for creativity, problem-solving and out of the box thinking.
Understanding and being able to manipulate nanomaterials on a general level is critical, but to leverage these for practical use, you’ll also need to stay up to date on the latest and greatest in best practices. Many fields that that make use of nanoengineering do so through the broad field of material science. This interdisciplinary subject emphasizes the understanding of materials to more effectively design structures. Material scientists and engineers deal with challenges, such as how to design components for everything from bridges to computer drives in ways that maximize strength and other properties while minimizing cost. By manipulating structures of a certain element, you can create different electrical and/or mechanical properties than normal. Carbon is an especially common choice for these projects, because of its unique bonding capabilities and the wide variety of behavior exhibited by its many allotropes. It’s the kind of real-world problem-solving that many engineers live for.
Nanoengineering on the industrial level
Having a background in material science and nanotechnology can lead to a number of job options in industry positions due to this practical application. For example, while steel is still the gold standard of most engineering projects that involve bridges, buildings and other such construction projects, there are ways to make these structures much stronger. By manipulating materials at the nano level, other options open up. A single gram of carbon, for instance, arranged in a particular configuration might be able to support significantly more weight than the same amount of steel. That higher weight-to-strength ratio would make it more efficient for industry use.
However, it is unlikely that you’ll build a bridge made out of carbon anytime soon. While the material is stronger, it is also much more expensive. But despite its impracticality, companies are becoming better at finding creative solutions to these shortcomings every day. For example, some aircrafts currently have fan blades that are made of a carbon composite, which wouldn’t have been feasible just 10 years ago. As research progresses in the field of nanotechnology and material science, those advancements translate to manufacturing improvements.
If you’re interested in being a part of this exciting movement toward more efficient materials with near-limitless application across numerous industries, consider completing a master’s in engineering degree that includes courses in nanotechnology. In addition to being both a challenging and fulfilling career choice, a position in the field of material science can be financially rewarding as well. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 materials engineers earned an average annual salary of $87,690.
Careers with nanoscale science and engineering
Courses in an MS program that cover nanoscale science and engineering will prepare you for a number of rewarding careers. These include positions in the following fields, among others:
- Health care and pharmaceutical industries
- National security
- Energy capture or storage
- Food control and packaging
Nearly any field can benefit from a professional with a working knowledge of nanotechnology and the latest and greatest best practices for working with materials on the nanoscale.
An area with a particularly growing demand for engineers with a background in nanotechnology is electronics. As computers, phones and other devices become smaller, the components that fuel those devices and hold memory need to keep pace. Engineers working on the nanoscale are able to design and create components that are more efficient and cost-effective than ever before, which is extremely valuable across a variety of industries ranging from the medical field to the aerospace industry.
Demand for engineers in the U.S. is fairly steady. According to the BLS, job openings for mechanical engineers are growing at a rate of about 5 percent and carry an average annual salary of $83,060. While the BLS predicts little growth in the electrical engineering field over the next eight years, demand will remain consistent. The average salary for these specialized positions is higher, at $93,260 a year. Because few new jobs will be created, the field will likely become more competitive, which emphasizes the benefit of earning a master’s degree.
Nanotechnology is also an important part of job openings in the growing field of biomedical engineering. The BLS reported that the field is expected to grow by 23 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than the average across industries. In addition to the rewarding opportunities to create life-saving health care technology, biomedical engineers are well-compensated: The yearly average salary in 2014 was $86,950.
Start your career with a degree from UCR
Interested in pursuing a career in nanoengineering? Further your professional aspirations today by earning an online master’s degree in engineering from the University of California, Riverside. The prestigious program will equip you with the real-world knowledge and skills that you need to succeed as an engineer in today’s competitive market.
When you choose to earn a master’s degree with a concentration in materials at the nanoscale, you’ll take courses through the university’s interdisciplinary Materials Science and Engineering program. These courses, taught by leaders in the field, cover topics such as the patterning of materials via scanning probe lithography and the mechanical, electrical, magnetic, and chemical properties of nanoparticles to prepare you to work in a position that involves nanotechnology.
By pursuing your master’s with a concentration in materials at the nanoscale through UCR’s online master’s program, you will be able to further your education from the time and place of your choosing without many of the sacrifices required to earn a degree at a physical location. Wherever you go, your coursework goes with you. It is a convenient way for the 21st century engineer to pursue a higher education while also working full or part time.