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By Ernest Worthman, Editorial Director

Well, if you read my column last month I was threatening to do another forecast. Truth be known, I forgot what I was going to discuss. No matter, forecasting was getting kind of boring and to tell the truth, I found a much more interesting topic.

This month I want to revisit something that I have been following for some time now and talk about on occasion — nanotechnology. I like to follow this topic because I think it will be one of the great enabling technologies.

Nanotechnology is a bit behind the curve in telecom. In other areas, such as medicine, nanotechnology is showing a bit more face than in our industry. Not for lack of interest or development, rather some industries offer a bit of a better platform for the present state of nanotechnology. But it will come to our industry, in force, sooner or later, and I’m convinced it’s a technology to watch.

I get a couple of newsletters from MIT on a regular basis. In one of them I came across this really slick article about carbon nanotubes. The article talked about the applicability of these nanotubes as an alternative to silicon. It seems there is a school of thought that silicon chipmaking technology is facing the end of its viability in a decade or so. With that looming on the horizon, scientists are looking for alternative chip materials and one promising candidate is the carbon nanotube (here is the link to the article I’m sourcing this from: http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/04/11/rnb_110904.asp?trk=nl).

It turns out that researchers from the University of Manchester in England and the Institute for Microelectronics Technology in Russia have found that the equivalent of unrolled carbon nanotubes (sheets of carbon atoms only a few atoms thick) have comparable electrical properties that show promise as being compatible with today's chipmaking methods.

The article talks about researchers coming up with a process that peels ultrathin layers of graphite from graphite blocks to produce graphite sheets that are less than a nanometer thick and 10,000 nanometers wide. It turns out that these ultrathin graphite sheets have properties that mimic the semiconducting channel of a transistor.

‘Bout time...What is so intriguing about all this is that transistors made from these ultrathin graphite sheets have the potential to be much faster than today's transistors made from semiconductors. The physics behind this is that the arrangement of atoms in the sheets causes electrons to travel through the sheets in a straight path, rather than bouncing off of the edges of the graphite channel. Now that is so next generation. I guess this has advantages even over some of the latest semiconductor devices that have single electron channel junctions.

The article goes on to say that my friends at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a method for growing ultrathin graphite films by depositing a vapor of carbon atoms on a silicon-carbon crystal surface. These researchers have made films three atoms thick and several millimeters wide.

Now, this stuff is still in development, so no one is saying exactly where these innovations are going to find a home, but it’s obvious that the target is silicon.

This is just a snapshot of the nanotechnology arena. Also of note in nanotechnology are nanophase materials. In this field, nanophase materials are quite nascent at this stage. However, with the emergence of new tools and synthesis techniques, the opportunity for new developments in materials science, especially nanotechnology, draws a lot of salivating responses. Furthermore, today there is a pressing need for improved materials at lower costs, which is something right up nanotechnology’s alley.

And it’s not just universities doing this research. The government is looking at nanotechnology — big time. A who’s who of federal agencies are involved in nanotechnology research. These including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and even the Department of Justice. If nothing else, this level of interest from the feds certainly warrants keeping our ears to the rail in this field.

I think this is rather exciting, don’t you? Some of this is expected to become commercially viable within the next five to ten years. Personally, call me a geek, but I’m excited about the possibility of having wireless nanosensors, the size of blood cells, coursing though my veins. These guys would be capable of sending and receiving the data I now have on my business card through the galvanic properties of the skin when I shake hands with someone. Ultimately, I won’t have to worry that I forgot to order business cards in time for the Trans-Dimensional Intergalactic Multiwave Wireless Integrated Technology Symposium (X-DIMWITS). Hope to see you there.

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