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Making Information Technology Available to All

Nanotech and the Next Wave: Pervasive Computing

Lawrence Gasman
NanoMarkets, LC

Since the 19th Century, electronic information technology has spread in waves. The first wave was the telegraph, then the telephone and eventually PCs, the Internet, fiber optic networks and mobile phones. Each wave has made powerful new information technology available to new groups and regions. Each has met a genuine need, but has been made possible only by novel enabling technologies. The idea for cell phones dates back to the 1940s, by which time the potential market for ubiquitous "radio telephony" was well understood. It took the advent of computerized switching to make mobile telephony possible. Alexander Graham Bell dabbled with optical communications, intuitively understanding its power. It took the discovery of the laser, optical fiber and optical amplification to make optical communications a practical reality.

The next wave of information technology development -- "pervasive computing" -- will be enabled by nano-technologies. Pervasive computing implies an environment in which the dominant communications device is a descendant of today's smartphone, capable of serving as phone, broadband Internet device, video entertainment product, and accessing diverse sensor networks and databases. Like the current generation of broadband-connected desktops, the pervasive computing device will always be turned on; always hooked in to cyberspace. It will bring the power of the broadband communications to the shopper, traveler, road warrior businessman and others on the go.

Pervasive computing will only become real when we find much better ways of powering mobile devices. The Lithium batteries that are used in cell phones, PDAs and notebook computers increase in power density at a rate of 5 to 10 percent annually, but this is considerably outstripped by the power demands of mobile devices as they are forced to perform more functions. New nanomaterials may be able to boost the power density of Lithium batteries. But if mobile devices, originally designed for brief chats, are to become always-on, general purpose information devices, new types of power sources are going to have to be devised and this is where nanotechnology comes in. Several firms including General Electric, STMicroelectronics and Siemens, as we well as start-ups, are examining the potential for printable photovoltaic cell arrays that could be laminated on mobile communications devices and constantly recharged using artificial or natural light. Both Siemens and STMicroelectronics' solutions use buckyballs, while start-ups Konarka and Nanosys are using semiconducting nanoparticles.

Printable photovoltaics are close to commercialization, as is an alternative approach to mobile power involving miniature fuel cells. These could boost the time-between-recharge of mobile devices from a few hours to tens of hours. Some of this work has a distinctly nano aspect to it. Finish researchers are, for example, developing a disposable fuel cell that can be manufactured using a low cost printing process and which is based on and organic molecule chemistry. It would be low-cost enough to power an RFID tag cost effectively for a very long period of time. Nanomaterials may also be used for catalysts in fuel cells.

Nanoengineering may help to reduce the power requirements of mobile devices. But not all nano-enabling of pervasive computing is concerned with power. Technology based on conductive organic polymers is already being used in prototypes of displays that can be rolled up and unfurled when needed. In some cases nanotubes may provide the means for bringing the electrical current to each pixel in the display. Users of PDA-like mobile devices can finally have screens that are more than a just few inches square, increasing the effectiveness of mobile computing and video applications. These flexible screens will gradually take on the look and feel of paper spawning a whole generation of new information products; Sony has already been selling a book reader with such an electronic paper screen in Japan. This reader can store approximately 500 books of about 250 pages each and retails for $370.

Nanotechnology can also improve the memory of mobile devices. Today a choice of memory chips must be made between DRAM and SRAM chips which are fast, but volatile (i.e., information disappears when the current is turned off) and Flash chips that are non-volatile, but slow. "Nanomemory" alternatives to Flash are being developed. Nantero will soon begin sampling a memory chip based on carbon nanotubes and several important electronics firms; Honeywell and Freescale among them – are already shipping magnetic memories (MRAM) based on spintronics. These new nanomemories will vastly increase the storage capabilities of mobile devices enabling them to handle storage hungry database and video applications.

Beyond Mobility: Nanotech and the Next Bandwidth Revolution

As pervasive computing takes off, the extra traffic is going to clog up the networks, requiring a new wave of technology deployment to create new bandwidth. This may not happen for a decade. The last wave of bandwidth creation technology -- fiber optics --way overshot the need for bandwidth, but eventually the overcapacity is going to get used up. It is impossible to be sure what the cure will be. But ways of lowering the cost of fiber optics will certainly be welcome and, since the laser is the most expensive part of any fiber optic link, this mean lowering the cost of lasers. Quantum dot lasers have already been built and offer some potential in this regard. Another way of lowering the cost of photonics may be through building lasers using standard silicon CMOS processes. Such lasers have already been built in prototype, but are too big to count as a nano-products. However, as the semiconductor industry continues to follow Moore’s Law, we can expect to see the appearance of silicon nano-lasers. The inevitable march of electronics into the "nanocosm," will also make it possible to economically fit all the signal processing and sophisticated traffic management that high speed fiber optics requires onto a single chip. We can already see the hints of this will happen in the latest network processors from Intel. These are being manufactured at the 90 nm node and incorporate such sophisticated features as firewalls and traffic management, at very low price.

When the semiconductor industry reaches the 20 nm node and is truly being built around nanotechnology, even more will be possible. However, don't expect these developments to come too quickly. In assessing what nanotechnology can do to make powerful information technologies widely available, it is vital to remember or tendency to overestimate the impact of new technology in the short term and significantly underestimate it in the long term.

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