House with a view

Physicist Dr Carl Masens is domesticating nanotechnology. Forget blue-sky ideas and self-replicating robots, his showcase house shows how big a difference nanomaterials can make to everyday life. Julia Pierce reports.

Come home to nanotechnology may seem an unlikely marketing slogan for one of the world’s most controversial areas of technological research. But Australian researcher Dr Carl Masens believes home is precisely where nanotechnology could begin winning hearts and minds.

Masens, a physicist specialising in nanotechnology, is head of the NanoHouse project at The University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). Nanohouse is an initiative designed to showcase the everyday applications of nanostructured materials. If it is successful, people around the world will think ‘lower household bills’ rather than ‘grey goo’ when they hear the word nanotechnology.

NanoHouse was born from a desire to raise the profile of UTS’s 18-month-old Institute of Nanoscale Technology. Working on a tight budget, Masens and his team initially decided to construct a single room to demonstrate their materials’ potential contribution to energy efficiency, and hopefully attract new funding.

Within a short time the concept had grown to the creation of an entire NanoHouse exhibition featuring the best that ‘domestic’ nanotechnology has to offer.

‘Not having much money means we haven’t been able to just sit back and play with our expensive toys,’ said Masens. ‘But it doesn’t cost anything to have an idea, and we have managed to attract attention from both home and abroad. Exposure on this level is something that money can’t buy.’

At first glance the NanoHouse looks like any other modern family home. In reality it is very far from ordinary, and bristles with experimental materials and leading-edge technologies.

These include windows coated with a plastic film containing nano-scale zinc oxide particles. To the occupant the glass remains transparent. However, the coating blocks certain parts of the light spectrum such as ultraviolet and infrared from entering the room, preventing the house from heating up – particularly useful in Australia’s summers – and protecting furnishings from the fading caused by light damage.

An immediately attractive benefit to the more slothful householder may be the ‘self-cleaning’ nature of the NanoHouse windows. Another coating reacts with UV rays to generate a photocatalytic process that breaks down organic dirt particles on the windows’ surface.

The house also contains a cold lighting technology called Supersidelight designed by Queensland company Poly Optics. This uses a solid but flexible plastic rod made from a polymer fibre that can ‘harvest’ daylight, then conduct and radiate it around the building. The light is piped into flat panels that glow to create a highly energy-efficient illumination system that can be installed in surfaces such as walls or floors.

In an experimental installation in one Sydney home the cost of lighting a room day and night was calculated at just 50p a year.

Other features include self-sterilising surfaces that can reduce mould and fungi growth in areas such as the bathroom, reducing the amount of detergents and bleach needed for cleaning, and super-hard, non-scratch gold-effect materials that can be used to make taps and door fittings.

Many of the systems in the NanoHouse such as the windows and lighting can be fitted to existing buildings. Masens believes the combination of apparent normality and tangible benefits will win over the sceptical and suspicious.

‘The windows won’t look much different from a normal window but will do a lot more,’ he said. ‘They won’t get dirty and won’t let in heat and rays. People will see their air-conditioning bills being cut and will get a longer life from their curtains and upholstery when they no longer suffer from photo-damage.’

The NanoHouse team has now designed 15 different theoretical buildings to demonstrate the flexibility of the systems and how the technology can be altered to respond to Australia’s eight distinct climatic zones.

‘A cold climate requires the house to gather rather than reflect heat,’ said Masens. ‘However, in the more tropical regions we waste money every year trying to get rid of excess heat via air-conditioning.’

The house has already attracted attention from outside Australia. After viewing a display of the concept at the Asia-Pacific Nanotechnology Forum in Cairns last year, representatives of the US Senate visited Masens and are currently negotiating sponsorship of a touring NanoHouse exhibition later this year. It could then visit Europe and Japan.

Masens is also talking to a number of companies and institutions with a view to including their own research in the show. ‘The US National Science Foundation has spent a lot of money developing new technologies but has been having problems communicating the value of nanotechnology,’ he said.

‘The idea of demonstrating systems in the context of the home is attractive to them.

‘Our intention is to partner with companies which have an interest in each area,’ said Masens. ‘For instance, if you are a Japanese firm wanting to show how your nanotechnology-based system can work in the US, we can demonstrate this.’

More fundamentally, Masens sees the NanoHouse as playing an important role in encouraging realistic debate over the value of nanotechnology and whether there is justification in fears that science may spiral out of control.

‘Concern about what we will be living with in the future is normal,’ he said. ‘Nanotechnology has attracted a lot of blue-sky speculation, and is facing a PR exercise similar to that suffered by genetically modified products.

‘By doing this we can deflect conversation from the realms of ‘grey goo’, looking at the real issues rather than the speculation over self-replicating robots.’

The issue is current across the globe, not least in the UK where a full-scale inquiry is underway into the role of nanotechnology and high-profile figures such as Prince Charles have spoken sceptically about it. A world tour would also do much to promote the image of engineering and technological research down under.

While Australia’s budget for nanotechnology R&D is still dwarfed by that of the US, the Australian government has recently increased its support for research on the subject. Most decisions concerning the funding for institutions take place at state level. But the Australian Research Council (ARC), which handles applications for grants for specific projects at federal level, last year named nanotechnology as one of its four priority areas.

Its support has contributed to Australia’s growing reputation as a centre for research in the emerging technology. Examples include a £4.5m expansion of the Semiconductor Nano-fabrication Facility (SNF) at the University of New South Wales, creating a special research centre for Quantum Computer technology. The SNF’s work includes fabrication of advanced nanoscale semiconductor devices.

Helped by funds from its state government, the University of Queensland is setting up the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Brisbane at a cost of £30m to draw together biological and physical research. Meanwhile, a consortium of universities has formed Nanotechnology Victoria, an organisation to manage infrastructure investment and commercialisation of technologies.

Masens believes that the NanoHouse project could act as the perfect stage for his country’s efforts in engineering. ‘Australia has been put on the back foot by the fact that it is on the far side of the planet and doesn’t tend to have as much money to put into schemes as some other regions,’ he said.

‘However, we think our idea will make up for this by attracting the imagination of the rest of the world. At the end of the day there are very few places on earth that could not find some sort of benefit from this.’