Nanochemistry

Overview

Geoffry Ozin, a pioneer in the field of nanochemistry, described the field as "an emerging subdiscipline of solid-state chemistry that emphasizes the synthesis rather than the engineering aspects of preparing little pieces of matter with nanometer sizes in one, two or three dimensions. … The nanochemist can be considered to work towards this goal from the atom 'up', whereas the nanophysicist tends to operate from the bulk 'down'."

Nano Crater

Today, nanochemists work in biomedical chemistry, polymer chemistry, product synthesis, and a host of other areas. They use a wide variety of methods to prepare and assemble "little pieces of matter" with novel electronic, magnetic, optical, chemical, and mechanical behaviors that can be attributed to their nanometer-scale size.

Because almost all of the atoms in a nanoparticle are on the surface, these particles have chemical and physical properties that differ from those of individual molecules or larger aggregates of atoms or molecules. Nanoparticles have already made an impact on the consumer market, in the form of sunscreen lotions that absorb ultraviolet light without giving you a white nose and clear coatings for cars that protect the bright paint colors underneath without detracting from their appearance. Carbon nanotubes are used in strong, lightweight car parts and sporting equipment, as well as composites that protect airplanes from lightning strikes and keep computer circuits cool.

Nanochemists develop new pharmaceutical products, structural materials, electronic device components, light-emitting materials, and many other products, many already available commercially. Nanochemists can also study the health and safety effects of airborne and water-borne nano-sized particulates or use nanoparticles to clean up or neutralize pollutants. Instrument specialists can develop new methods for studying materials on the nano-scale, or they can train and assist students and customers in the use of these instruments.

Several universities and national laboratories have research programs specifically focused on nanochemistry, nanophysics, and nanotechnology. The National Nanotechnology Initiative coordinates the efforts of 20 federal agencies that sponsor and conduct research and development related to nanoscale systems. Their website (http://www.nano.gov/education-training-workforce ) provides information on colleges offering nanotechnology programs and websites with relevant job listings. Additional information is available at the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge Center.

Typical work duties include the following:

  • Synthesize and characterize new nanomaterials; develop new applications for existing materials
  • Develop the theoretical foundations for the properties of nanomaterials
  • Develop and support commercial products using nanomaterials
  • Study the health, safety, and environmental effects of nanomaterials
  • Teach courses and train students
  • Communicate research results to funding agencies and the general public
Related Fields
  • Synthetic chemistry
  • Analytical chemistry
  • Materials science
  • Optics
  • Electronics
  • Environmental science
  • Biology
  • Medicine
  • Product development and support
  • Chemical engineering

 

Education

Nanochemists require a solid background in chemistry or a related scientific field. Although some universities offer coursework in general nanosciences, the consensus is that it is preferable to pursue a degree program in a conventional field, such as chemistry or biology, and add courses in nanoscale science (nanochemistry, nanobiology, nanomaterials, etc.) as an area of specialization. See http://www.nano.gov/education-training/university-college for an extensive list of nanoscience-related university programs.

Research and academic positions usually require a Ph.D. Research assistants and technicians may have bachelor's or master's degrees. Instrument specialists and customer service specialists may have master's degrees. Some program managerial and administrative jobs may require master's degrees, but research director positions generally require a science Ph.D.

 

Licensing

Licenses are not generally required for nanochemistry.

 

Workspace

Nano lab

Nanochemists often work in academic, industrial, or government laboratories. Theoretical nanochemists may do most of their work in computation and work in an office. Nanochemists generally work regular hours, unless an experiment or a project deadline requires working overtime.

Environmental nanochemists may work outdoors, collecting samples and data. They also work indoors, analyzing data and writing up their results. Industrial nanochemists may work in factory settings, or they may travel to customer sites to advise and train customers or to troubleshoot processes or equipment. Academic nanochemists may teach classes and confer with students during office hours.

Nanochemists may present their work at conferences and symposia, and they may publish their work in scientific journals or general-audience publications.

 

Technical Skills

Analytical Communication Background Knowledge
  • Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving applied research problems
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills to design experiments, troubleshoot processes, and analyze data
  • Attention to detail in synthesis and characterization work
  • Written and oral communication skills to explain findings and share results with scientists and nonscientists
  • Computer skills, including familiarity with computer modeling and data analysis
  • Synthetic and/or analytical chemistry skills, including competence with laboratory instruments

   

Career Path

Nanochemistry careers offer a wide variety of entry points: basic or applied research, product development, customer and user support, or environmental impact monitoring.

Students and recent graduates may pursue internships in industrial, academic, or government laboratories to see if this field is a good fit and to help with deciding whether to pursue a graduate degree.

Research and academic careers generally require a Ph.D. and possibly one or more postdoctoral fellowships. Research associates and technicians may decide to stop with a bachelor's or master's degree, or they may return to school to earn a doctorate after gaining some work experience.

Nanochemistry researchers generally gain increasing independence and larger budgets for their work as they gain more work experience. They may supervise research teams consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, or technical staff members. Some experienced nanochemists move into program management or administration, where they spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules and obtaining funding, in addition to overseeing researchers and research programs.

 

Future Employment Trends

The National Science Foundation estimates that by 2020, 2 million workers in the United States will have nanotechnology-related jobs, and the U.S. market value of products using nanotechnology will be $1 trillion, or 5% of the GDP.

 

Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

Nanochemistry is an emerging field, and opportunities exist not only in the areas of theoretical and basic research, but also in applied research and commercial product development. Methods and techniques are still evolving, so a willingness to solve problems and work with early-stage processes and products is an advantage. As with any highly publicized emerging field, there is a certain amount of risk involved. Not every startup company or new product line succeeds in the marketplace, so career flexibility, resilience, and a tolerance for risk are essential for the more cutting-edge lines of work.

Because of their small size and large surface areas, nano-scale materials are very sensitive to small amounts of impurities and small changes in synthesis conditions. Thus, careful attention to detail is required for jobs that involve materials synthesis and characterization. Research and manufacturing work may be done in clean rooms or involve the use of glove boxes, vacuum lines, or other specialized environments.

Research and policy-making involving the health, safety, and environmental effects of nanoparticles requires an ability to gather and present clear and convincing evidence. It also requires explaining complex concepts to nonscientific members of government agencies and the general public and listening to the concerns of persons with a stake in the issues.

Opportunities

The National Science Foundation estimates that by 2020, 2 million workers in the United States will have nanotechnology-related jobs, and the U.S. market value of products using nanotechnology will be $1 trillion, or 5% of the GDP.

Education

  • Research, academic and director positions usually require a Ph.D.
  • Research assistants and technicians may have bachelor's or master's degrees.
  • Instrument specialists and customer service specialists may have master's degrees.
  • Technician-level jobs may require bachelor's degrees.

Salaries

  • Associates: $35,000–$50,000 per year
  • Bachelor’s: $40,000–$65,000 per year     
  • Master’s: $50,000–$80,000 per year
  • Doctoral: $75,000–$100,000 per year