Bright Ideas: Nanotechnology and Electronics

I recently read about researchers at the University of Michigan who have demonstrated that nanowires can be used as electrodes in organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays, thereby enabling manufacture of larger flexible OLED displays. This started me thinking about how nanotechnology might affect the appearance and function of electronic devices.

For example, could a laptop computer display unroll like a portable movie screen or could you detach it from the laptop and attach it to the back of an airline seat with Velcro®? Or might the laptop of tomorrow be roughly the same shape as the ones we use today, but be thinner, lighter, sturdier, and able to perform more functions? I began to tally up the ways that nanotechnology might change laptops.

One option to the nanowire-enabled flexible OLED displays could be a very thin, low power, high resolution screen that uses nanotubes. Motorola is working on such a display which it calls a nano-emissive display because the nanotubes emit electrons at each spot on the display that has to be illuminated to form a picture. This display actually works much like an old fashioned TV, but can provide laptops with very lightweight screens and fine enough resolution for high definition TV.

Motorized hard drives may also become a thing of the past, replaced by lighter, faster, and more reliable solid state hard drives. One such drive is the 64 Gb solid state hard drive that Samsung is making available later this year. These drives are created using a process that prints nano-scale features called transistor gates on the memory chip. The width of these gates can vary. The Samsung module uses flash memory chips with 60 nanometer-wide transistors gates. It will be interesting to see how quickly manufacturers convert from conventional hard drives to flash based-hard drives as they become available with 64 Gb and greater capacity.

Less conventional technologies are also being explored, such as the atomic force microscopy-based memory being developed in IBM's Millipede project. This type of memory uses many fine silicon probes with tips 1 nanometer in diameter. Researchers are projecting that this chip should be able to store 1 terabyte (abbreviated Tb, and equaling 1,000 gigabytes) on a 1 square inch silicon chip.

Microprocessor manufacturers are also making processors with nano-scale transistors that use less power and fit more transistors on each silicon chip, therefore providing higher performance. The current generation of microprocessors is being built with 65 nanometer gate width transistors and processors that use 45 nanometer gate width transistors should be available in the next few months as the race to increase the computing capabilities of your laptop continues.

Nanotechnology is also providing options for powering your laptop. Lithium ion batteries are commonly used in laptops and many lithium ion battery manufacturers use nano-enhanced electrodes to improve battery performance and safety. A company called ZPower is developing batteries composed of silver and zinc that use nanoparticle-enhanced electrodes. The claim is that these batteries will have twice the energy density of lithium ion batteries and allow your laptop to operate longer on a single charge. 

Several companies are working on fuel cells powered by methanol. These cells use a nano-enhanced catalyst and could run your laptop for as long as a full day. When the fuel cell runs out you just replace the methanol cartridge, rather than having to plug your laptop into a wall outlet.

Nanotechnology will certainly transform laptops and other electronic devices over the next few years, and with the many types of changes who knows what the laptop of tomorrow will be. It could weigh just ounces and run for weeks on a single charge. We can only hope that while reinventing the laptop some manufacturers take the opportunity to also design a chassis that offers a break from today’s standard flat, black or grey box. Imagine impressing your friends with a laptop with a display that unfurls like a sail and a case that comes in every color of the rainbow.

To learn more about how nanotechnology can improve electronics visit my Electronics and Nanotechnology page.

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