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6/5/2008
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Nanotechnology: Tiny Tech Is Clean Tech

If anyone at the NSTI Nanotechnology Conference and the concurrent CleanTechnology show in Boston this week was concerned about recent reports of toxicity associated with carbon nanotubes, they weren't showing it.

If anyone at the NSTI Nanotechnology Conference and the concurrent CleanTechnology show in Boston this week was concerned about recent reports of toxicity associated with carbon nanotubes, they weren't showing it.Prized for their high electrical and thermal conductivity, tensile strength, and toughness, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are the building blocks of nanotechnology.

One application for CNTs that's seeing fast growth is lithium ion batteries, which are seen in hybrid cars. There were three hybrids at the Boston show. Chrysler brought a Hemi-hybrid SUV and an ethanol-burning Sebring.

PowerGenix of San Diego displayed a 2008 Toyota Prius, which it had retrofitted with a 120-cell, ~1.2 kWh NiZn battery pack. The company makes sealed rechargeable nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries, which weigh 35% less and cost 20% less than the Prius battery pack. PowerGenix intends to license its technology to a major battery manufacturer, CEO Dan Squiller told me.

Another application for CNTs is ultra-strong and lightweight sporting equipment. CNTs are 16 times stronger than steel, which means fewer broken bats, but I doubt MLB will ever adopt them. Arkema displayed an Easton softball bat, bicycle handlebars, and a golf club made of multiwall CNTs.

While nanotechnology companies like Nantero (not at the show) are working with CNTs to "enable instant-on computers and to replace the memory in devices such as cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, and PDAs, as well as applications in the networking arena," the industry as a whole is still deep in its R&D phase. Consumer products are just trickling onto the market.

That's why the major focus of exhibits at the show was on laboratory, R&D, and manufacturing tools for the nanotech industry. From raw materials -- got tubes? -- to precisely engineered atomic force microscopes (AFMs), molecular printers, and ultrasonic liquid processors, and vibration isolation units.

The vibration isolation units from Halcyonics reminded me of a house party I went to in college. The resident engineering students had built their own vibration isolation device to dampen floor vibrations to their sound system. They set the turntable atop a thick foam platform and suspended the rig from the walls by metal wires. It wasn't pretty, like the neat gear from Halcyonics, but the LPs never skipped, not even during the most vigorous slam dancing.

See images from the Boston NanoTech and CleanTech show here. And get a tutorial on slam dancing in this video.

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