Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Nanotalk for dummies: Does anyone really understand nanotechnology and its opportunities?


December 22, 2008
By Dick Morley


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Dick MorleyI keep getting asked about the market and technology for nanotech. Despite the gazillion buzz words, most of us have very little understanding about what nanotech is and the opportunities it presents. I’m reminded of a quotation by Richard Feynman, a Nobel physicist, who said, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

What is nanotech, anyway? It is something that’s teeny weeny; it’s small, down to the size of the molecule — the kinds of things you learned about in science class, but have long forgotten. We are now able to manipulate those elements. Mother Nature’s been working with nanotech, but calls it DNA. All the cells in our body have identical software embedded in the nanotechnology of the DNA. We are but a mound of intelligent little DNA animals that somehow make us and all life.

What is nano? I did a three-person survey with my staff and family, and they made some interesting comments. First of all, they know it is here, but they can’t see it or know about it. Certainly not with understanding. One of them said, “Do I know if I’m wearing a wedding ring?” What is meant by this is that we know our wedding band is there but we are unaware of it. All three in my survey were quite suspicious. Will nanotechnology take over the world? This magic technology is viewed as dangerous — will it become beneficial? Nanotechnology works with the molecular bonding between elements and molecules that form the world around us. The bond between molecules and atoms is extremely strong.

A new nano material called graphene has 300 times the strength of steel. It is stronger than wood, polymers, composites, tungsten, titanium and ceramics. The strength of its internal design lends itself to extreme resistance to distortion and failure. The internal system looks like atomic chicken wire and is two-dimensional. It has no depth — it is one molecule thick. They make paper out of it and it stays together — one molecule thick.

The flatness of the graphene is interesting. Since these carbon graphenes are conducting both heat and electricity, one can make extremely good sensors. Deflection of the flat surface formed by graphene will be very sturdy, reliable and quite measurable.

I remember seeing a video of a factory making some material out of nano fibres (nanotubes). As you walk through the process (it was a relatively small facility), you’d look at various stages of the manufacturing process. All you notice in the first couple is that you can see nothing. As you go downstream, it becomes less and less of nothing and becomes a fog. At the end of it, it was weaved together and held together by friction (which reduced the strength quite a bit) and you ended up with what amounts to a felt mat — 30 times stronger than steel, one-third the weight of aluminum and made out of carbon. There’s a lot of talk in using it in little teeny machines. But that has another title called MEMS — micro electro mechanical systems. MEMS may be the subject of a future column, but isn’t necessary for this one.

The fields of interest presently in the technical community are nano robots, self-assembling mechanisms, scanning microscopes, circuits and electronics, DNA manipulation, sensors and medicine. For example, nano machines crawling around in your bloodstream, like Pac Man, could possibly eliminate plaque. Putting millions of sensors over the wing of an aircraft so you can micro-control the turbulence gives you a five to 10 per cent higher speed and better economy. These fields of search are not the market themselves, but, like the catalytic converter in your car, make the markets possible and improve material.

Nanotech is important because it enables new technologies and products to be both improved and designed. The hype is overdone, but the value is real. To some extent, I like to compare nanotech to a nail when you’re building a house. Without the nail, the house can’t go up.

We spin this new technology market into trillions of dollars. Nanotech, like nails, is not a trillion-dollar market, but the markets they enable are. Relays are not an immense business, but food and beverage is. Relays, be they computer simulation or real ones, enable you to make stuff in that monstrous food market. The impact is high, and we expect the hit of nano to be highest in paint, auto finishes, medicine and materials that need strength that is out of reach today. Nanotech is the catalyst of strength.

This brings up the media. The media puts a lot of spin on stuff because they’re very excited; both in the negative and positive sense. I’m reminded of the movie Batteries Not Included. The alien builder bugs scrambled around doing magic. To some extent, they are very large nanotech devices. So, going way down to the bottom and coming back up is where we should be. We should start at the bottom and go up. The media says this will change our world. This is partially true, but not like computers changed our world. We will get substantial improvements in prosthetics, material science, surface manipulation, sensors and understanding.

And your author cautions: be careful of words being thrown around. Words such as bandwidth, global warming and Y2K lead the way in hype. Nanotech is becoming one of those words.

There’s a big difference between education and understanding. Understanding is the key element in the nano applications of the future.


Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.