Nanotechnology: peeking into the future of computing and business

From energy storage, to durable devices, to a silicon chip alternative, nanotechnology could hold the key to technological innovations

In 1999, Philip Kuekes, a senior computer architect at IBM, spoke of getting "many Pentiums on a grain of sand" in an interview with ABC.

He and his research colleagues, R Stanley Williams and James Heath, had just built a logic gate the basic building block of all computers at a molecular level.

Kuekes said he hoped this kind of nano-scale work would lead to the creation of simple computers the size of a single bacterium, adding there could be a "prototype of a molecular computer in five years and something you might buy in 10".

While that hasn't worked out quite to schedule as far as we are aware, anyway progress is being made in other areas.

In a 2009 report produced by Materials UK, magnetic nanoparticles for data storage and electronic nanoscale materials for dielectrics were listed as being the nanotechnologies closest to commercial production that could benefit IT.

While magnetic nanoparticles are already in use in some areas of medicine, according to a research paper by Natalie Frey and Shouheng Sun, published by NanoScienceWorks, they could eventually lead to the production of storage media with a capacity in excess of 1TB per square inch.

Other potential uses for nanotechnology that are not quite so far along in the research and production process include smart clothing, which could act like an integrated health monitor.

These could behave much like devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone make today, only more comprehensive and without the need to remember to put on a bracelet or clip.

Bio-reactive clothing is another possibility, which will no-doubt be welcomed by commuters everywhere.

While these innovations are still some way off, nanotechnology scientist and professor Jayan Thomas and his Ph.D. student Zenan Yu, two researchers from the University of Central Florida have found a way to manipulate copper at the nano level, turning it, effectively, into a battery that can transmit electricity as well as storing it.

This is achieved by applying a special alloy to highly conductive copper nanowhiskers that is able to store electricity that passes through the copper core.

While this is still in its infancy as well, it is a huge leap forward in the field and could lead, Thomas and Yu claim, to the development of clothing impregnated with these wires and tiny, flexible solar cells. This would then allow the clothing itself to act as a wireless charger for devices like smartphones meaning no more running out of battery when you are out of the office if you forget to charge your device overnight.

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