Nanotechnology, the art and science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular scale, has the long-term potential to revolutionize everything in the manufacturing environment, as well as the immediate-term potential to significantly reduce industrial sensor size and lower computer workstation and controller power consumption.
A nanometer (nm) is one-billionth of a meter. An atom measures approximately 1/3 nm. The diameter of a human hair is about 200,000 nm. Nanotechnology performs functions at the sub-atomic, atomic or molecular levels, where quantum mechanics rule.
Before the early 1980s, no tools existed to allow scientists and engineers to observe, let alone manipulate, individual atoms. Capabilities changed when IBM researchers invented two new microscopy techniques: atomic force microscopy (AFM) and scanning tunneling microscopy (STM).
Both techniques represented a radical departure from previous types of microscopy, which worked by reflecting either light (optical microscopes) or an electron beam (electron microscopes) off a surface and onto a lens. However, no reflective microscope, not even the most powerful, could image an individual atom. To do so, the new techniques used a cantilever to "read" a surface directly, the way a record player's needle reads a record.
AFM works by passing the cantilever ," so sharp that its tip is composed of a single atom ," within a few nm of a surface. The atomic forces exerting a pull on the cantilever are measured to create an atom-by-atom topographical map.
STM is similar to AFM, but measures a quantum effect called tunneling. STM's cantilever carries a tiny charge, and classical physics says that a wall of potential energy should prevent the charge from jumping to the surface. However, when two atoms come close enough, quantum rules let electrons "tunnel" through that wall. STM measures these escapees to map the surface.
By modulating the voltage at the cantilever's tip, scientists and engineers not only can see atoms, but also can push and pull them into place. STM won its inventors the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Another tool is e-beam lithography. Unlike photolithography, the technique used to make microchips, e-beam lithography is not constrained by the wavelength of light. Using a beam of electrons from a scanning electron microscope, a person can etch details as fine as a few nm.
Nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology are converging as scientists are learning to imitate biological patterns. However, the revolution will not happen overnight.
Japan has taken a lead in nanotechnology research and development, followed by the United States and Western Europe. In this year alone, more than $2 billion will be spent on nanotechnology research around the world.
The U.S. government has invested approximately $1 billion on nanotechnology in the past two years, and contributions from eager venture capitalists are expected to reach that level this year. The National Science Foundation forecasts that the market for nanotechnology products and services will reach $1 trillion by 2015.
Today many major companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard (HP) and Hitachi are involved in nanotechnology research and development. IBM was the first to manipulate individual atoms using an atomic force microscope and has been a pioneer in this space. In the next few years, IBM plans to use nanotechnology to fashion computer hard drives capable of storing 40 times more information than current hard drives can store.
HP and its partners in academia are targeting molecular computing. HP and University of California scientists ann-ounced the receipt of a patent this year for a process that builds computers fitting into an area smaller than the head of a pin. It is based on complex molecules that can be flipped back and forth between two states through the use of electricity.
Many other smaller startups are very active in this area. United States-based Nanomix, for example, is working on sensors that integrate nanotube-sensing elements into a silicon chip. The sensor chips will offer high sensitivity in a very small package. Large-scale sensor arrays on a single chip ultimately will displace many expensive technologies such as mass spectroscopy. Applications include toxic gas leak detection, medical monitoring and industrial process control.
Another U.S. company, Nantero, is working on memory chips based on organic substances. It plans to have a commercial prototype within the next two years. The technology, called NRAM (nonvolatile RAM), will provide a universal memory chip that can replace DRAM, SRAM (static RAM), flash memory and hard disk storage.
Nanotechnology is in its infancy, but has the potential to change everything in a manufacturing environment ," from sensors to controllers and even manufacturing processes themselves. In the near term, nanotechnology will enable size reductions in industrial sensors and slash workstation and controller power consumption.
Ghosh is a vice president of ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com.