Nanotech Products Will Arrive In Years, Not Decades
With all the hype around nanotechnology, some of it is sure to turn out to be dot-com-style hot air. But manufacturers are starting to promise real IT products based on nanotech in one to three years. And we're not talking only about startups that are sure to disappear a nanosecond after the IPO door closes.
Korean electronics company Samsung is promising to market a 32-inch, flat-screen computer monitor using nanotubes, tiny cylinders that are key building blocks of this emerging technology. In the presence of an electrical current, nanotubes can be made to fire off electrons, so engineers plan to use them to stimulate an individual pixel. The resulting screen could be as thin as an LCD display but cost less and use less power, Samsung says.
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Data storage was the first IT area touched by nanotechnology, and researchers say there's much more to gain from storing far more data in less physical space. At IBM's labs in Zurich, Switzerland, engineers are working on a project called "millipede" that Tom Theis, director of physical sciences for IBM Research, calls a "nanomechanical" approach to storage.
To understand how millipede would work, picture an insect with a long, thin body and a thousand tiny legs. IBM's engineers build one of those bugs out of silicon. The tip of each leg, only a few nanometers across, rests on a polymer surface. When stimulated with a pulse of electricity, it makes a tiny dent, or senses an existing dent, and sends an electrical signal. If each leg could do this thousands of times per second, the device could record or read information at 1 Gbps.
"It's a little bit like going back to the punch-card era," Theis says--if a paper card could hold a few hundred gigabits per square inch. Millipede technology can be taken to 1 terabit per square inch, Theis says, reducing the data in a pile of books almost 6 miles long to the size of a postage stamp. Commercial applications of the technology should be available within the next three years.
Building nanotubes on a large scale is still extremely difficult, particularly for precision parts such as nanocircuitry. Nevertheless, less-precise applications, such as in monitors, are likely on the near horizon. Samsung already built a working prototype of its nanotube monitor and expects to have a product available in time for the 2003 holiday season.
Of course, this emerging sector is also attracting plenty of startups that expect to deliver products in the next few years. Nantero is a manufacturer led by Greg Schmergel, a former consultant and Harvard business-school grad who sold his last company, ExpertCentral.com, in January 2000 to About.com. Nantero was co-founded with two chemists and is backed by $6 million in venture capital. It plans to have NRAM chips--high-density, nonvolatile random access memory--based on nanotube technology on the market in two years. The company says the NRAM chips will store up to 10 times as much data as similarly sized regular RAM and will be faster and use less power.
An Irish startup, Ntera, has an idea for nanotech monitors that's far more radical than Samsung's. The company, formed by University College Dublin with $7 million in venture funding to commercialize nanotech research, is working on computer displays made of thin, flexible films. Nanosized electrodes inside the material would stimulate colored molecules to produce a picture that's close to paper quality, which the company says would make it ideal for billboards, store displays, and E-books. Ntera hopes to begin production on some of those applications later this year.
Edward Moran, director of Deloitte & Touche LLP's technology, media, and telecommunications high-tech product innovation practice, says chemical sensors are another area in which products are expected soon. Cyrano Sciences in Pasadena, Calif., already sells a handheld "electronic nose" that can sniff out things like pesticides and chemical weapons, he says. Smaller and more sensitive devices will be appearing from numerous companies within the next year.