Posted by: Chris | 26/05/2009

What is all the buzz about nanotechnology?

Over the past two months, CEA/Leti in France, the government of Bulgaria and a consortium of universities in Poland have all made commitments and investments to a new field of research known as nanotechnology.

Actually, it is quite strange that one would call a something a  “science” after simply based on its size or dimension.  But when you get down to the level of 1000 or less molecules (10,000 times smaller than the thickness of human hair) that should perform a certain function, it becomes the research of very small structures, that behave differently from larger systems of the same material – hence the word nanotechnology. For example, gold looks and behaves very different when it is only a few molecules in size.  For example, it melts at much lower temperatures and its color is oddly red and not that brilliant yellow that we all have come to appreciate.

Adding to the string of recent current news, next week here in Zurich we will lay the foundation stone for our new nanotechnology lab with ETH.   Which begs the question, why all the buzz about nanotechnology recently? On top of all the doom and gloom in the press, why are governments, universities and corporations investing in this science?

In one word, opportunity.  There are all kinds of statistics to point to, such as the analysts of Credit Suisse who estimate the growth rate for nanotechnology to be 25 to 30% per year with a market size of $220 billion by 2010. Or Lux Research, who say that nanotechnology will impact $2.9 trillion worth of products across the value chain by 2014.  If you will, stats are just predictions, and as an engineer I prefer hard facts.

When I think about the future promise of nanotechnology I don’t need charts to see the opportunity, working at a Lab I can see it first hand.  While nanotechnology is already making its way into common products from lipstick to the paint on a car, here in Zurich we are taking it further, much further:  for example, we work on atomic switches, where single electrons decide over whether the switch is open or closed. These projects are important for the future of our industry, that will soon face the challenge, that Moore’s law of doubling the number of transistors every 18 months on a conventional CMOS chip no longer can be maintained.



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  2. Nanotechnology is only a tool but not the effective solution. It is necessary to understand that overcoming the looming obsolescence of the electronic computer requires a redefinition of the very computing concept itself. The solution not only decreases components, but it also increases the “computing level” as well. Meaning the evolution from binary to a much powerful multinary computing and light, allows us to achieve it.

    Considering computing as the ordered manipulation of a signal. First, light is the fastest signal able to cross back and forward the same unit faster than electricity crosses many of them. Second, the binary approach limits the capabilities of light and does not take full advantage of its codification potential since light is able to carry and process information using its composing colors (wavelengths). Using multinary color codification and thus, surpassing the binary limitations, a huge increase in both codification capacity and computation logic possibilities is available to be exploited. The binary byte – 8 spaces filled with either 1 or 0 – produces 256 (2^8) possible combinations. Filling them with only 10 different colors produces 100,000,000 (10^8) different possibilities. Using 100 colors result in 10,000,000,000,000,000 (100^8) different possibilities per byte. Light is composed of around 300 colors so, theoretically, light could even reach 300^8 different values per byte, that is, 65.610. different possibilities against the 256 possibilities of the binary byte. So multinary color codification highly reduces the number of bytes required to encode becoming the first target in solving the capacity problems of actual electronic computers. Third, equal computing increase happens regarding computational logic, since logic is choosing elements according to certain rules, the more elements (color operands) used, the more possible choosing rules can be applied and thus, a richer computational logic than the binary boolean one is possible. Then, since computing is the manipulation of a signal and light is a well-known and easily manipulable signal able to undergo many different alterations, one can foresee the many possibilities for the light transistor and, as happens with the role of the electronic transistor (the building block that allows the whole electronic computing), the light transistor will be the building block allowing the next generation of computers.

    When the bussing mainstream is focusing resources researching new methods of reducing more and more binary components, it would be a smart move to direct some attention to new non-binary computing theories that by themselves, increase the computing power.

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