10 November 2007

The old is new again: a nanotube crystal radio

Nanowerk has an especially nice description of a nifty development at my alma mater, U.C. Irvine:
Researchers in California have now reported another step towards showing nanoelectronics in systems: They have developed the world's first working radio system that receives radio waves wirelessly and converts them to sound signals through a nano-sized detector made of CNTs...

Peter Burke and Chris Rutherglen at the University of California, Irvine developed a CNT demodulator (a device that converts the radio frequency signal from the carrier into baseband signals such as video, audio, or data for further processing or amplification) that is capable of translating AM (amplitude modulation) radio waves into sound. In a laboratory demonstration, the researchers incorporated the detector into a complete radio system and used it to successfully transmit classical music wirelessly from an iPod to a speaker several feet away from the music player. In this setup, the carbon nanotube functions in the critical role as the receiver's AM demodulator. Burke, an Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and leader of the UCI Nanotechnology Group, and Ruthergle, a grad student in Burke's group, reported their findings in the October 17, 2007 web edition of Nano Letters ("Carbon Nanotube Radio").

"Our CNT-based amplitude-modulated demodulator is effective at detecting the modulation signal up to 100 kHz" Burke tells Nanowerk. "We also successfully demonstrated our demodulator in an actual AM radio receiver operating at a carrier frequency of 1 GHz and capable of demodulating high-fidelity audio."

...Digging into their publication in the American Chemical Society's Nano Letters, Rutherglen and Burke describe how their clever application of a carbon nanotube performs the exact same function the shiny gray/silver lead sulfide crystal did in the crystal radio sets of our childhood (at least, those of us Of A Certain Age): they're leveraging the device's nonlinear voltage-to-current behavior to detect the amplitude modulation of a carrier wave, in this case a 1GHz carrier.

Now, a post-publication appendix to the ACS report by Rutherglen and Burke notes that some similar work has been done independently in as-yet-unpublished work by the group of Professor John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Doug Natelson (whose informative Nanoscale Views blog I've added to my list of links) notes that the UCI development is perhaps receiving more than its fair share of attention given that something roughly similar has been done on an even finer scale using an AFM a couple years ago, but nevertheless I tip my hat to the UCI team: this is taxpayer-supported research, and folks who might not read professional ACS publications deserve to know what their withheld wages have accomplished. Besides, nanotech is exciting, and I love the parallels with crude crystal radios and what that says about the future of this sort of thing. Nice job, folks.

31 October 2007

NI Week "Breakthrough Innovations" Panel can now be viewed here on CarpeNano

Google Video now has the Breakthrough Innovations panel from NI Week up for viewing and downloading (and, joy, embedding). And a rockin' time it was, with fascinating and insightful commentary from my fellow panelists Patricia Seybold, Prof. Andrew Hargadon of U.C. Davis, SolidWorks' Suchit Jain and National Instruments co-founder Dr. James Truchard, moderated by NI VP John Hanks. What an honor to chat with such brilliant and accomplished folks! They had many things to say about the process of innovation and how it can be fostered in organizations of all types.

It's an hour and twenty minutes, so grab some coffee and enjoy. Maybe check out my other posts about the panel at some point too: 1, 2, 3

P.S. An insane travel schedule has kept me from updating CarpeNano as much as I'd like. There's a small stack of goodies to post, so check back often... or subscribe to the free email service (at the bottom of the blog kiosk column on the right of this page).

07 September 2007

Turning steps into escalators, nano style

With the week past, it's time to kick back a little, put work aside, and maybe reflect a bit. Idly checking my web hit statistics for the week, I note a few hits from people googling my name combined with "HyperBit™" --my technology to increase the resolution of digital-to-analog converters (DACs).

First, hello to you googlers. I hope the following answers your questions. Please email me at scott.c.jordan "at" gmail.com if not.

We live in an analog world. For our digital toys to connect to the world, their bits and bytes need to be converted to old-fashioned voltages and currents. DACs are the specialized chips which do that. Now, like any digital circuit, DACs have limits in terms of the size of the biggest numbers they can digest-- this defines the number of voltage steps they can produce. Most DACs are limited to 4,096 or 65,536 steps.

Sometimes you need more. For a nanopositioner of 300 micron travel, dividing its range into 65,536 steps equates to about 5 nanometers per step. Many applications can benefit from even more (finer) steps. Until now those would require really high-performance digital nanopositioning controllers. But if you are designing your own circuit to output a voltage or using a National Instruments multifunction board (or perhaps doing something completely outside the realm of nanopositioning), you might be out of luck. Higher-resolution DACs are available but most are optimized for audio and consumer applications rather than instrumentation applications, which can lead to drawbacks. And switching out DAC chips might not be an option; you might be limited to whatever's soldered into your setup.

Here comes HyperBit™ (U.S. patent 6,950,050). Implemented either in software or hardware, it teases extra application resolution--lots of it!--out of existing DACs. It can, for example, improve the resolution of a nanopositioner by two to three orders of magnitude. While your ultimate performance limit depends on your hardware and environment, it's pretty safe to say that the DAC won't be a bottleneck anymore.

Unlike the other YouTube videos linked in this blog, the video above is my own. It uses a home-made millivoltmeter to demonstrate the technology's benefits. It runs less than two minutes; take a look. We've already published on it for piezo and MEMS nanopositioners. Besides hardware implementations, it has been implemented in LabVIEW, LabVIEW FPGA and in a DLL.

Many other mechanisms and circuits can benefit. If it looks like something your applications or designs can use, drop me a line ...before your competitor does.

03 September 2007

Nano-diamonds by the kilogram: bricks on a pallet for nanotech

Diamandoids (like the animated decamantane molecule at the right) are perfect, molecular-sized diamond crystals. They require no polishing or cleaving by expert jewelers, nor (being sub-microscopic) are they necessarily a girl's best friend. But they retain signature characteristics of jewelry-store diamonds: strength, rigidity, and interesting optical and mechanical properties. Where they differ from serious bling is in their newfound abundance: ChevronTexaco researchers have developed ways of making specific diamandoid molecules in kilogram quantities with high purity and yield.

Originally observed in raw petroleum, the ability to manufacture specific diamandoids has eluded researchers until now. Suddenly they're like any industrial chemical. Potential areas of significant import include drug delivery, lubrication, microelectronics, nanomechanisms and a host of other applications, including some quite exotic ones.

But mostly, advances like this illustrate how nanotechnology is at square one. These are the figurative building blocks (and literal bricks) of a future just beyond the reach of imagination. I liken this to the advent of the transistor as a commercial commidity in the 1960s. For legions of my fellow childhood Heathkit-builders, transistors were stubby little tin-can gizmos with three wires sticking out. They had to be meticulously soldered into place one-by-one, and they weren't cheap. Who at that time could have imagined that multicore processors, iPods, the Internet, WiFi, cell phones and everything else we take for granted would be reality today? Sure, there was science-fiction and Dick Tracy's wrist-communicator, but we all knew that stuff was fiction and that anyone who really believed that such things were on the horizon was either dreaming or slightly nuts. Yet the reality just 40 years later is even more stunning. (However, I'm still waiting for my flying car.)

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson has said that the next twenty years' technological progress will equal that of the entire 20th Century. This is a good example of why he's right.

01 September 2007

Metals go organic: Ormecon's solderable "Organic Metal" nanofilms

In everyday life, metals are quite recognizable: shiny, dense, moldable, malleable, good conductors of electricity and heat, and ...well, metallic. Ores for these materials are dug up from the ground, often in oxidized form, and processed into usable materials through smelting and other methods of refinement, some of which are quite energy-intensive. Everyone knows what metals are. (Except maybe astronomers, who stubbornly insist on calling everything but hydrogen and helium a "metal.")

Not so fast. Polyaniline, a polymer (that is, a substance composed of chainlike molecules based on carbon) with promising metal-like conductivity properties was first identified back in the 1930s and discussed with increasing interest as an actual "organic metal" as far back as 1995. This organic metal differs from the metals of everyday experience in significant ways. It can't be molded or hammered into shape. It isn't mined or refined. It can't be milled or polished. Instead it has been mostly used for coatings, for example as an anti-static or anti-corrosive film. Now Small Times reports, this venerable material is the basis of a useful new nanomaterial of significance for the manufacture of electronics:
Just 50 nanometres thick, [Ormecon's] Nanofinish consists of less than 10% silver and more than 90% Ormecon's proprietary organic nanometal... Nanofinish's performance and thermal aging resistance is said to be superior to any metal or OSP finish. The company says it is in use by renowned market players such as Flextronics. The new process consumes less than 10% of the energy compared to other metallic finishes, and promises to save more than 90% of (expensive and partially noble) raw materials, says Ormecon.

Ormecon states:
...Other metallic finishes which are outperformed by Ormecon’s new nanofinish, are electroless Nickel-Gold, immersion silver and immersion tin.

They also note:
It is insoluble and unmoldable, but we succeeded in making it dispersible - the only way of processing conductive polymers and Organic Metals. We manufacture this material in form of about 10 nanometre small primary particles. They agglomerate with very strong forces to powder particles, still hard to disperse. Therefore, we provide the Organic Metal as predispersions or ready-to-use dispersions, lacquers, paints and blends for various applications in printed circuit board manufacturing, corrosion protection, antistatic and conductive surface modification, organic and polymer light emitting diodes (OLEDs, PLEDs), "plastic electronics" and many other products. This is a new kind of nanotechnology.

(Furthermore, Ormecon has reported that polyaniline materials show promise for fabricating organic LEDs and other useful microscale devices. )

It's hard to imagine a technology as seemingly old-fashioned as soldering, but that is the foundation for the manufacture of all the electronic gizmos that we take for granted. Advances there advance everything.

30 August 2007

Changing the world, one electron at a time

Nanosolar is a fascinating company and a venture to watch. Well-funded (in part by some of the guys who brought you Google), with almost 700,000 square feet (65,000 square meters) of fresh manufacturing space, this company has figured out how to leverage self-assembling nanoscale materials to create flexible, printable solar cells of high efficiency and attractive durability and cost. While some credible detractors like Cypress Semiconductor's T.J. Rodgers have their money on more mature silicon-based technologies rather than newer materials like Nanosolar's Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide [CIGS], the sheer coolness of what Nanosolar has accomplished makes it a standout.

There's another reason to cheer Nanosolar: they're doing their manufacturing in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the US dollar held down as a strategy for turbocharging the export economy, this is a fine strategy for a fast path to profitability today, and a welcome boost for the Bay Area's fading manufacturing fortunes.
They're not alone in pursuing novel approaches to solar energy or even flexible solar cells, but Nanosolar seems well-positioned to succeed in the perilous jump from venture to enterprise.

Patricia Seybold on the "Breakthrough Innovations" panel

Patty Seybold has a detailed and perceptive post on her Outside Innovation blog regarding the NI Week Industry Experts panel on "Breakthrough Innovation", on which I was honored to serve with her:

NI’s customers are scientists and engineers who are experts in a wide array of disciplines, from nanotechnology and photo-optics to the design of alternative energy power supplies in automobiles, the control of robots and other manufacturing processes, to the design of signal processing systems on programmable embedded chips in today’s cell phones.

These engineers and scientists use NI’s virtual instrumentation software innovation toolkit, LabVIEW, to design, prototype, and deploy applications that measure real world phenomena—analog signals and physical movement—analyze these signals, describe actions that need to be taken, send out the signals to execute those actions (usually in parallel), analyze the results, and take additional actions. Whether the device being programmed is a nanorobot being used to splice genes or a spectrum analyzer being used to measure radio frequency interference, the scientist is dealing with real world phenomena in real time.

Hanging out with these real world scientists and engineers got me thinking about the future of programming as we know it today. The future of programming is a topic to which NI’s top executives have also been giving a lot of thought.
Yes, they have-- over more than two decades, starting with the very fundament of LabVIEW. So it is considerably ahead of the game in programming's new world of parallelism (concurrency) enabled by multicore processors, which are now at the heart of almost every new personal computer sold. The ability of processes to execute truly in parallel poses all sorts of new possibilities... plus big challenges for programmers who aren't so fortunate as to be using LabVIEW, which is inherently parallel.

As pundits from Bill Gates on down have opined, parallelism poses a potentially bigger revolution in software design than object-oriented programming did. Some of these same folks contend it'll be a decade before programming tools catch up. Theirs, maybe.

As a guru on innovation, Seybold recognized an important comment from LabVIEW inventor Dr. Jeff Kodosky:

“We have a successful parallel language for multicore machines today. You can exploit the performance of multicore machines now. The ultimate architecture for parallel programming is the FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) and, of course, LabVIEW is already there,” Jeff Kodosky exclaimed.

That underscores a key point that is often underplayed and under-appreciated: in one smooth move three years ago, LabVIEW wrenched the reconfigurability and raw parallel-processing power of Xilinx's top-end FPGAs from the hands of specially-trained engineers and placed these capabilities in the end-user's hands. No longer just field-programmable, thanks to LabVIEW FPGAs are user-programmable.

In my own native field of scientific instrumentation, this is a truly momentous development. My customers and colleagues will discovering new things this enables for years to come.

My own first FPGA application was to fashion an easy-to-use LabVIEW interface to an instrument whose speed otherwise would have required a custom logic circuit. Next came a controller for a novel MEMS nanopositioner from MIT that implemented my patented DAC-resolution enhancement technology, HyperBit™ and Convolve, Inc's remarkable vibration-cancelling Input Shaping® technology, all operating in six degrees of freedom simultaneously. Next came a high-speed multi-axis analog interface to a nanopositioning controller that didn't have one. Next came some contributions to a customer's novel fast controls for... well, I probably shouldn't say since publication is still pending, but it involves manipulating molecules and measuring forces on a sub-sub-nanometer scale.

...Did I mention those were all done with the same NI card, with reusable, modular code that could be emailed around and ported from application to application just by dropping an icon in and wiring it together? These applications were previously unapproachable without a major custom hardware/software design effort. I did each of 'em at my desk in a few hours. Or on airplanes. Or on my lap-- I implemented HyperBit™ on the FPGA one evening while relaxing on my couch.

Spinning multiple parallel processes on an FPGA is easy, and now multicore processors offer some of the same capabilities as a standard feature of new PCs. That, folks, is a revolution.

A video of the Industry Experts panel on "Breakthrough Innovation" can be viewed at http://www.ni.com/niweek/keynote_videos.htm -- click on "Industry Experts Panel." All the keynotes make for fascinating watching and are recommended.

17 August 2007

Pretty much the limiting case for nanotechnology

At the very frontier of nano-technology are researchers' endeavors to control and leverage the quantum nature of matter. Unlike the messily analog world we're used to, the quantum world offers the potential of orderly, defined states which can be used for fast and dense calculation and storage. Nanowerk reports on some interesting and rather beautiful work performed at IBM more than a decade ago but newly spotlighted in an art exhibit, of all things, at the United States Patent and Trademark Museum in Alexandria, Virginia:

Driven by their discovery of the STM's ability to image the wave patterns (more precisely known as the "density distribution") of electrons on the surface of a metal, IBM Scientists Michael Crommie, Chris Lutz and Don Eigler (the "artists") were compelled to take the next step -- building an electron's "quantum state" to their own design. Here they have positioned 48 iron atoms into a circular ring in order to "corral" some of the surface electrons and force them into quantum states determined by the circular corral walls. The ripples in the ring of atoms are the wave patterns of some of the electrons that were trapped in the corral. The mechanics-turned-artists were delighted to discover that they could quantitatively account for the behavior of the electrons by solving a classic problem in quantum mechanics -- a particle in a hard-wall box -- paving the way for building functional quantum states for potential use in future computer chips and other areas.
More fascinating images and discussion are posted at http://www.almaden.ibm.com/vis/stm/gallery.html

Nanowerk notes,

IBM researchers continue using STM technology in an effort to pave the way for circuits made from atomic and molecular components. Such circuits could enable computers with hundreds of thousands of times more logic elements on a chip than today's state-of-the-art technology. That, in turn, could lead to smaller, faster, lower-power and even more portable computers and devices nobody has even imagined yet.
They also provide a nice "timeline of the legacy of IBM's Nobel Prize-winning Scanning Tunneling Microscope":

  • 1981: Invention of the STM
  • 1986: IBM Researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer win the Nobel Prize in
    physics for inventing the STM
  • 1990: For the first time, the ability to position individual atoms is
    demonstrated by spelling out "I-B-M" using xenon atoms
  • 1993: Quantum Corrals created
  • 1998: Discovery of molecular wheels
  • 2000: Discovery of the quantum mirage effect
  • 2002: Molecule cascade created
  • 2004: Single-atom magnetic measurement achieved
  • 2006: Ability to control atomic magnetism achieved

09 August 2007

Note the subscription box down on the right

I set up a free (and spam-free) email thingie which will deliver fresh, steaming Carpe Nano posts directly to your inbox. Yum.

Scroll down to the right.

Welcome NI Week visitors

The kindly folks who have shepherded NI Week into a hugely-attended monument to networking and collaboration this year have put a link to Carpe Nano up on their daily summary of external coverage of the event. Thanks!

Yesterday's "Industry Experts" panel on Breakthrough Innovation, in which I was so fortunate to participate (and even netted a pre-event press mention), went off well. We had some spirited discussion which I hope was as engaging for the audience as it was for those of us up on the dais. A video of the session will be available Real Soon Now. I'll provide a link when it's up.


UPDATE, 30 Aug. 2007: The Industry Experts video is now online: http://www.ni.com/niweek/keynote_videos.htm -- click on "Industry Experts Panel." More commentary on the panel and conference here.

"OAI adds nano imprint lithography option for mask aligners"

Here's something clever, and good news for the nascent field of nanoimprint lithography-- the art of forming exceedingly small structures on planar substrates by, well, stamping 'em. The technology allows formation of much smaller and more sharply-defined structures than can be achieved via optical microlithography (the foundation of the semiconductor industry). Besides potentially enabling the semiconductor industry's next act in its methodical trudge along Moore's Law, the technique shows promise for forming useful patterned structures on next-generation disk-drive media and pole features for read-write heads, and for "laboratory on a chip" substrates for biomedical and homeland-security sensing. And it's an enabler for really groundbreaking new devices like the first room-temperature single-electron memory cell developed by Wei Wu at Princeton (where he studied under nanoimprint lithography pioneer Stephen Chou) and now at HP.

Now OAI, a semiconductor microlithography toolmaker, has mashed nanoimprint lithography into its mainstream tools as a swappable option, as reported by Small Times:
OAI adds nano imprint lithography option for mask aligners

August 1, 2007 -- OAI (Optical Associates Inc.) says that it has added to its mask aligners nano imprint lithography with sub-20 nm resolution. Working with Nanolithosolution Inc. (NLS), OAI is offering a nano imprint module as an option for all of the company's mask aligners -- which can then be used as imprint systems or as standard mask aligners (the module can be easily removed at any time). The module can be included with new orders or retrofit onto existing systems.... OAI's nano imprint module was developed by HP after years of research and development.

A nice solution, a fine differentiator for OAI (whose tools are touted for their flexibility), and a good way for deliberate and risk-averse chipmakers to position themselves to leverage this new technology.

07 August 2007

Y.A.B.A.F.M.I. (Yet another brilliant AFM innovation)

Atomic force microscopy is a leading tool for nanoscale studies of surfaces and objects as small as molecules and even atoms. With nanoscale features commonplace in semiconductor, data storage and life-sciences applications, AFMs are important for both research and industrial uses. These sophisticated instruments build a picture of the nano-world in much the same way that a blind man with a white cane does, using an atomic-sharp tip on a tiny spring cantilever whose motion is observed by sensitive instrumentation. But, as Nanowerk describes, researchers at Harvard and Stanford have literally put a new twist on the conventional way of doing things:

"In order to create a high speed and sensitive nanomechanical measurement tool, we have started from the most commonly used AFM technique called the tapping mode" explains [Harvard's Ozgur] Sahin. "The primary advantage of this technique is that it protects the tip and the sample during the imaging process and minimizes the interaction forces.
"For our goal of performing mechanical measurements, tapping mode also provides a unique opportunity because the sharp tip is moving back and forth against the surface and feels the variation of force during the interaction. If one can detect those forces varying with tip sample distance, one can perform a clear and detailed mechanical analysis."
Unfortunately, there are major difficulties in measuring the forces between the tip and the sample. These forces change at a rate much faster than the vibration of the cantilever, therefore the force sensing cantilever cannot respond to them. Indeed, there is a wealth of publications in the literature working on the non-linear dynamics of tapping cantilevers that seek indirect ways to measure these forces.
Hmph. I got bit by the non-linear dynamics they're talking about in a customer's advanced AFM application just ten days ago. Not being an atomic force microscopist, at first I had no idea what I was looking at and thought our instrumentation had gone bonkers. Nanowerk and Sahin continue:

"In a way, our work stands on the 'shoulders of these giants', because they have reached a very good understanding of the complicated cantilever dynamics in AFMs" says Sahin. "Nevertheless, we have taken a different approach by engineering the force sensing cantilever to measure the interaction forces directly."
The AFM cantilever has many vibration modes. Each one of these modes can act as an independent force sensor. The rapidly changing forces demand a fast (high resonance frequency) mode to be used. The problem with high resonance frequency modes is that they are stiff and do not bend easily to give a good signal.
"What we have noticed is that torsional vibration modes allow good signal levels and they have high enough resonance frequencies" says Sahin. "Unfortunately, tip sample forces do not excite torsional oscillations because the conventional cantilevers have their tips on the center line. Therefore, we designed cantilevers that have their tips off-centered. When this cantilever hits the surface, tip-sample forces generate a torque that bends the cantilever torsionally. Torsional vibrations can be detected in a commercial AFM system simultaneously with the vertical vibrations." When this cantilever is operated in conventional tapping-mode – touching the surface ever so lightly some 50,000 times per second (50 kHz) – the torsional vibrations can be simultaneously detected and translated into a time-varying tip-sample force waveform which contains detailed information about the mechanical properties of the sample.
"In principle, the speed of these measurements is limited by the oscillation frequency of the cantilever" says Sahin. "At the moment we are not fully benefiting from the speed enhancement, however, it is still more than a factor of thousand times faster than conventional mechanical measurements, yet it is much gentler to the sample.
"Improved speed enables mapping mechanical properties across a surface with nanometer resolution. I believe that in the near future we will see mechanical measurements performed within a microsecond. This will open up a new window to study time dependent phenomena at the nanoscale, such as protein folding and chemical reactions in general."
This is looking like another fundamental advance in a field that's littered with them.

06 August 2007

Off to see the wizards

The Austin American-Statesman has a nice preview summary of the NI Week confabulation which commences tomorrow in Austin. I referenced this a few days ago here on Carpe Nano while expanding on the topic of innovation.

The article is really quite a nice set of examples of how innovation can be driven by customers and achieved by artful incrementalism and cross-pollination:

...because NI Week brings together a large group of LabView's most loyal users, [Omid] Sojoodi, a senior group manager, and [Aljosa] Vrancic, a principal engineer, use it to get feedback on what they've done and what they might do next.

"We'll have closed-door sessions with our power users and talk about some of our products in development," Sojoodi said. "We target our power users, and they really help shape some of the more specific features we add."

The article goes on to quote Yours Truly advocating collusion:

Scott Jordan will be one of the more than 2,000 people expected to come to Austin for NI Week. He's director of nanopositioning at Physik Instrumente-USA and one of National Instruments' earliest customers.

Jordan will head a panel called "Breakthrough Innovation" on Wednesday, discussing different ways people have applied National Instruments' technologies. Those sort of interactions make NI Week an annual stop, he said.

"There's a chance to interact, to collide and to collude with your fellow LabView users, and that's huge," he said. "There's nothing like that anywhere else in the industry."

...Actually, I'm not heading the panel, just one o' the guys, but I'll do my best to help make it hop.

The point is: after a good conference, one walks away with (among other things) the germs of new ideas, new ways of doing things, new perceptions on market needs and trends, new contacts with bright folks who can help you do things with a new twist. Played right, those can propel exploration and development in unanticipated directions.

01 August 2007

Cellular Visions: The Inner Life of a Cell

Hat-tip to StudioDaily.com for helping publicize a remarkable animation of life on the nano scale:

Created by XVIVO, a scientific animation company near Hartford, CT, the animation illustrates unseen molecular mechanisms and the ones they trigger, specifically how white blood cells sense and respond to their surroundings and external stimuli.
The StudioDaily.com page referenced above has links to high-definition versions of this remarkable video. For blog purposes it was gratifying to find the whole thing posted on YouTube. The conception and content by were by Alain Viel and Robert A. Lue, and the animation was composed by John Liebler/XVIVO. See http://multimedia.mcb.harvard.edu/ for more information.

Virus 'hybrids' can act as nanoscale memory devices

NewScientistTech reports on a fascinating mash-up of viruses and quantum dots (nanoscale spheroids of selected materials including semiconductor atoms which yield remarkable electro-optic properties due to quantum containment effects). This research was performed at the University of California, Riverside, and published in a paper entitled "Microscale memory characteristics of virus-quantum dot hybrids" in Applied Physics Letters.

A new type of memory device has been made by researchers in the US and Italy by attaching individual viruses to tiny specks of semiconducting material called quantum dots. The "hybrid" material could be used to develop biocompatible electronics and offer a cheap and simple way to make high-density memory chips, the researchers say... "Interactions between organic and inorganic particles are quite fascinating," team leader [Mihri] Ozkan told New Scientist. "In our case, finding the memory effect was quite unexpected because each nanoparticle does not have any memory characteristics on its own, but only when connected as a hybrid."
Non-volatile memory
Ozkan and co-workers began by depositing cosahedral cowpea mosaic viruses (CPMV) on quantum dots (made of cadmium selenide and zinc sulphide) using different binding sites on the virus' capsid, or outer shell. CPMV, a plant virus that is harmless to humans, is about 30 nanometres across and consists of a capsid with an RNA core. Next, the researchers embedded the hybrids into a polymer matrix and sandwiched them between two conducting electrodes for testing. They found that each hybrid unit can be operated as a memory device with conductive states that can be switched between high and low, corresponding to a 1 and a 0, by applying a low voltage. These states are "non-volatile", meaning data is stored even when the power is switched off.

31 July 2007

"The struggle of nanotechnology companies to create value"

Nanowerk has an interesting analysis of nanotech public stock performance, accompanied by a fascinating graph and some close looks at some recent players. As they note,
If you have been an investor in nanotechnology companies and been lured by the promised riches, the picture doesn't look very pretty right now... and the performance gap between the Dow Jones and the nanotechnology index funds has widened significantly... Of course, individual nanotechnology stocks have done better, but then, some have done much worse. That brings us to the question: What will it take for nanotechnology, taken as a set of enabling technologies, to realize its disruptive potential and create value for nanotechnology companies? An interesting answer can be found in an analysis of the recent Unidym and Carbon Nanotechnologies merger. Growth in the sector through consolidation may enable the creation of companies with the critical mass necessary to finally get public investors really excited about nanotechnology.
Just a brief recap on the performance of the nanotechnology indices. The three major exchange-quoted indexes are the ISE-CCM Nanotechnology Index (launched in late 2005; symbol $TNY), the Lux Nanotechnology Index (launched in late 2005; symbol $LUXNI), and the Merrill Lynch Nanotech Index (launched in early 2005; symbol $NNZ). We took November 2005 as the starting point (that's when TNY and LUXNI were launched) and mapped against the Dow Jones Industrial Index.
The graph isn't pretty. But, it's instructive to look back at the first days of earlier tech booms. The PC and software boom of the mid-to-late '80s, for example, certainly ran in similar tracks of consolidation, the search for critical mass, high fliers who crashed (Eagle, Kaypro, Osborne, Ashton-Tate...) and huge rewards for investors who bet on the right horses (Apple, Microsoft...). And the first list is much longer than the second. Why should this revolution be any different?

Another point: is it really advisable for investors to "[take nanotechnology] as a set of enabling technologies"? As Andrew Hargadon has deduced (see my earlier Carpe Nano post), most big advancements are recombinant in nature rather than stand-alone lightning-strikes, and even the lightning-strikes of legend were more often the result of cross-pollination than dramatic new synthesis. The lesson there is for investors to seek catalytic, market-focused opportunities rather than niche-y, technology-specific wanna-be game-changers.

Nanowerk continues:
On April 23, 2007, Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc. (CNI), a Texas-based manufacturer of carbon nanotubes and Unidym, a developer of nanotube-based electronics in Silicon Valley, announced the merger of the two companies. The combined company, called Unidym, will be operated as a majority-owned subsidiary of Arrowhead Research.

"This transaction should be viewed as an important sign of the growing maturity of the nanotechnology business community" Ruben Serrato tells Nanowerk. "The pooling of investment capital, alignment of strategy and integration of materials and device production reflect a move away from early technology arrogance towards the beginning of a more sober market approach necessary for the commercialization of nanomaterials."...
If Nanowerk is correct, then capitalism is doing its job, and that's a good thing.

27 July 2007

DNA Replication, up close and personal

This animation illuminates how the molecular basis of life is understood through today's research, with profound implications for medicine. Blogger "Xantox" explains of this video from The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute in Australia,

Using computer animation based on molecular research it is possible to see how DNA is actually copied in living cells. This animation shows the “assembly line” of biochemical machines which pull apart the DNA double helix and output a copy of each strand. The DNA to be copied enters the whirling blue molecular machine, called helicase, which spins it as fast as a jet engine as it unwinds the double helix into two strands. One strand is copied continuously, and can be seen spooling off on the other side. Things are not so simple for the other strand, because it must be copied backwards, so it is drawn out repeatedly in loops and copied one section at a time. The end result is two new DNA molecules.
What you see here is occurring countless billions of times in your body right now. It gets even more wondrous: research by Steven Block and his students and post-docs at Stanford University show that processes like this essentially edit their own work. The discovery mechanism for all this is the astonishing nanotech tool of optical tweezers. See my article on that from Biophotonics International here.

24 July 2007

They get it.

Today, no commentary on a fast-birthing technical field like nanotechnology a can be complete without understanding how the ecosystem National Instruments has built on its LabVIEW platform impacts each enterprise's development, validation, production, and the process of innovation.

More than two decades after its introduction, LabVIEW's consequences for tech enterprises range from the stark (for example, ambitions of selling hardware to a technical or systems-integration community today often hinge on its LabVIEW-compatibility) to the vaguely-acknowledged (LabVIEW's global community as a crucible for innovation; LabVIEW's development speed as a competitive edge; LabVIEW's role in reducing the great unfunded liability of support; LabVIEW's libraries as facilitators for technological cross-pollination; etc., etc.).

NI's trademark is "The Software is The Instrument," and while they've certainly delivered with a comprehensive family of products and libraries, there's more to it than that, just as there's more to a university than its buildings and curriculum, more to a city than its neighborhoods and nightclubs, more to a country than its borders and monuments. Within each of these lies a certain abstraction, a culture, a churn and an energy which makes things happen.

As a LabVIEW user since its earliest version and the holder of several LabVIEW-based patents, I've been highly honored to join the Industry Experts discussion panel at the NI Week conference in Austin in early August. The topic is Breakthrough Innovation, and the panelists will discuss how innovation takes place.

When my interest was solicited, I replied:
Looking back, NI has a track record for providing tools for folks like me to devise, develop and deploy our own wild ideas. NI has made it accessible for non-specialists to interface with and coordinate instruments, construct virtual instrumentation, and now construct their own intelligent instrumentation including custom silicon logic that runs processes synchronously and truly in parallel. Each of these represents an enabler for innovation in its own right. And I'm struck that all have been brought together under the LabVIEW framework. Maybe "The Architecture Is The Innovation"? Enabling folks to cross disciplinary boundaries and mash solutions together into groundbreaking new hybrids is one of its key benefits-- and that speaks to the "networking" aspect that is foundational to NI Week.
So: Can innovation be made to happen, and what role does the LabVIEW architecture play in that? (Or is innovation always like lightning striking, with LabVIEW playing no more of a role than a screwdriver?) Also, given that organizational, interpersonal and managerial practices can strangle innovation in its crib, what are the business-model enablers for innovation? In particular, how can cross-pollination across diverse fields happen, and how can such mash-ups be nurtured in a way that swiftly benefits customers and the bottom line?
Well. Turns out the other panelists are:
  • Andrew Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen
  • Suchit Jain, Vice President of Strategy, SolidWorks Corporation
  • Patty Seybold, author of Outside Innovation
  • Dr. James Truchard, National Instruments CEO and Co-Founder
What a rockin' group! Dr. T, of course, I first met more than twenty years ago; no finer businessman walks this earth. Jain has been very visible in the area of design and analysis software and should have much to say on how to facilitate innovation, based on his efforts to drive new tools for innovation into communities of engineers used to doing things the tried-and-true way.

But though I'd heard of Hargadon and Seybold, they were unfamiliar to me. So I've been reading up.
Frankly (and in vivid contrast to the turgid, disconnected case-analyses too typical of scholars of management) some of what they've written has made me pause and exclaim "Whoa! These folks have been reading my mind!" My own proudest work has occurred when my group somehow stumbled backwards into living examples of their customer-partnered (Seybold), combinatorial and networked (Hargadon) methodologies: when we chanced to put the customer in the driver's seat for strategy and design, when innovation followed from mashing stuff together, and when we relied on a team approach which crossed organizational, technical and social boundaries. Often we'd missed the memo that something was impossible. And that's key, too.

Hargadon and Seybold's contribution is to illuminate and illustrate the process of innovation with examples and cogent distillation. Consider the following from the foreword to Hargadon's book, in which Stanford's Kathleen Eisenhardt, coauthor of Competing on the Edge, succinctly summarizes some of its key points:
"...From my vantage point two observations are crucial. The first is that innovation is the result of synthesizing, or 'bridging,' ideas from different domains... In short, extraordinary innovations are often the result of recombinant invention.

"The concept of bridging reveals a couple of counterintuitive points. First, whereas it may be appealing to focus on the future, breakthrough innovation depends on exploiting the past... A second counterintuitive point is that organizing structure can dominate individual creativity. ...Successful innovators are not really more gifted or creative than the rest of us. Rather, they simply better exploit the networked structure of ideas within unique organizational frameworks.

"The other crucial observation is that breakthrough innovations depend on 'building' communities..."
Exactly right.

Both Hargadon and Seybold maintain insightful and energetic blogs. See the links in my "Recommended Reading" list.

NI Week is August 7-9 in Austin and is stuffed with technical sessions and strategic discussions. The Breakthrough Innovation panel is Wednesday afternoon; check the website a week or so in advance for schedule details. It should be a blast. Hope you can join us.


UPDATE: 30 August 2007: The Industry Experts panel is now available as an online video: http://www.ni.com/niweek/keynote_videos.htm ...click on the "Industry Experts" button.

Nanotubes' amazing little brother

Think of graphene as a carbon nanotube slit lengthwise and laid flat, like a ribbon. First synthesized just three years ago, my sense from research reports to-date is that it may be more tractable as an interconnect material than nanotubes, and more readily manufacturable. As with carbon nanotubes, its electrical properties are remarkable, and it would not surprise me to see this material in microchips within a decade. If the process and manufacturing challenges can be licked--and they will be if the promise is what it seems to be--then the payback in terms of circuit speed and energy savings will be substantial. When you meet those gloom-and-doomers who beset every conversation with predictions of woe, just point them at this stuff, which looks likely to let us do more with less. Way more, with way less.
Researchers in both industry and academia are looking for alternative materials to replace copper as interconnects. Graphene could be a possible successor to copper, Nayak said, because of metallic graphene’s excellent conductivity. Even at room temperature, electrons pass effortlessly, near the speed of light and with little resistance, through metallic graphene. This would almost ensure a graphene interconnect would stay much cooler than a copper interconnect of the same size.

23 July 2007

Nano forecast, hold the hype

The folks at Nanowerk have compiled a readable, sober overview of "Forecasting Nanotechnology." Worth a read, and they make laudable use of hyperlinks to some interesting publications, analysis and commentary.

Old Spice smells like... a cure

Curcumin is worth googling about. It may well be the next wonder drug. Its nanotech connection is in some research being performed at Johns Hopkins:
Anirban Maitra, a professor of pathology and oncology at Johns Hopkins, and his collaborators in Delhi--including his father, Amarnath Maitra, a professor of chemistry--used special polymers to synthesize tiny nanoparticles about 50 nanometers in diameter. The particles have hydrophobic interiors and hydrophilic exteriors. The hydrophobic component holds the curcumin, while the hydrophilic exteriors make the particles soluble. This way, they can pass easily from the gut to the bloodstream. Once in the blood, the curcumin leaks out as the polymers slowly degrade.
This is a fine example of how nanomaterial technologies can provide new properties and facilitate new promise, even for something as venerable as curry spice.

Good-bye to the Diffraction Limit?

I love the sound of laws of physics wailing in the morning. Check this out:

The laws of physics dictate that the lenses used to direct light beams cannot focus them onto a spot whose diameter is less than half the light's wavelength... Now Harvard University electrical engineers led by Kenneth Crozier and Federico Capasso have discovered a simple process that could bring the benefits of tightly focused light beams to commercial applications. By adding nanoscale "optical antennas" to a commercially available laser, Crozier­ and Capasso have focused infrared light onto a spot just 40 nanometers wide--one-­twentieth the light's wavelength.
Remarkable. There's just gobs of applications this could enable.

I say it all the time but it bears repeating: we ain't seen nothin' yet, folks. Nano is big.

"Nanotech Disappoints in Europe"

For starters, this recent article in Business Week goes to the heart of some fundamental confusion about this thing we call nanotechnology: what in blazes is it?

Key quote:
...despite massive injections of government money, analysts say Europe is actually doing a worse job of commercializing nanotech than other regions. According to Tim Harper, a nanotechnology specialist at London consultancy Cientifica, while European firms have emphasized research into materials such as nanotubes and nanopowders, U.S. startups have focused more on real-world applications for the technology.

In layman's terms, that has translated into a handful of U.S. products that frankly seem almost trivial, such as stain-resistant trousers and more durable tennis balls. But the U.S. also is laying the groundwork for success in years to come by wringing out about twice as many nanotech patents as Europe has from roughly similar levels of public research funding, says Spinverse, a Finnish consultancy that advises governments and startups on nanotechnology.
Early on, author Jennifer Schenker's definition of "nanotechnology" makes good sense: "the cutting-edge science of manipulating materials and microscopic devices at the atomic level." Yet she seems to forget that definition after it appears in the first paragraph. From then on, her focus is on the development of novel materials, period, and how disappointing that has been for European businesses.

But what of European powerhouses such as semiconductor toolmakers ASML or Zeiss? Are we to regard their relentless pursuit of feature sizes of a few dozen nanometers as something other than "nanotech"? What of the groundbreaking video-rate atomic force microscopes from the UK's Infinitesima, or the nanoscale metrology breakthroughs from Renishaw or Heidenhain? What about Germany's Physik Instrumente (full disclosure: my employer), by far the world's dominant nanopositioning manufacturer for industry and research? Or Germany's Ormecon, whose new solderable trace material--90% organic nanometal--offers immense energy savings for circuit-board usage? There are dozens and dozens of examples.

The issue isn't that these success stories don't involve "nano." Clearly they do. Instead, it relates to two problems:

First is the press' penchant for nay-saying. There's little risk in ridiculing a mighty endeavor as failed (especially one that is highly touted or--let's face it--over-hyped), and readers eat it up whether or not such negativity is unwarranted or premature. After all, most readers don't attempt mighty endeavors, else they'd be in the stories rather than reading them. I'd remind the author, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." [T. Roosevelt] Such appreciation is too rare in journalism today; writers seem to find it mawkish and sentimental, rather than essential to human progress.

The second problem lies in the hidden premise in Schenker's fifth paragraph, already quoted above. Take another look: "Yet despite massive injections of government money, analysts say Europe is actually doing a worse job of commercializing nanotech than other regions." [Emphasis is mine.] The blunt fact is, governments are lousy at investing because it's not their money. Inherent in governmental investing is a perversion of the risk/reward equation. It also percolates a top-down approach to the marketplace which can disconnect managers from customers. Changing Schenker's "Yet despite" to "Because of" illuminates a different premise that just might hold some merit.

Happily, towards the end of the article, Schenker gets it right:
"Europe's weaker entrepreneurial culture also hurts startup activity. When nanotech companies are formed in Europe they often lack clear business models and exit strategies, and their teams tend to be short on commercial experience. That's one reason Europe gets a proportionally smaller share of global nanotechnology venture capital investment, according to Spinverse. And though public funding makes up some of the difference, it doesn't offer venture capital's other benefits, including strong industry knowledge and networking."
Even more happily, there is good reason to expect that Europe's "weaker entrepreneurial culture" is strengthening steadily. I look forward to the day when Business Week salutes European entrepreneurs' triumph of high achievement while exalting those who failed while daring greatly.
Meanwhile, if you want to see someone succeeding at mighty endeavors in the nano-materials arena that Business Week seems to think is the whole extent of nanotechnology, read about David Soane. I met him and his charming wife Zoya last Fall at the 4th International Symposium on Nanomanufacturing, where he gave the concluding keynote address, and could not have been more impressed, nor more confident of his ventures' success.

22 July 2007

The macroeconomic situation -- Exchange rates

The U.S. is in its fifth year of a competitive-ness turnaround thanks to the "weak" dollar, which has benefited exporters (and penalized importers). What's often missing from the discussion is historical context. Today's "weak" dollar (and I do detest that loaded adjective) represents something of a return to historic norms. This graph, from the National Association for Business Economics, provides some perspective. They note it is "from the latest NABE Outlook, from November, 2006, and shows the panel's forecast for the US dollar". The graph is entitled, "US Dollar Exchange Rate: Trade-weighted broad currency index." The NABE concludes, "The panel continues to see some modest softening in the dollar, which may help to improve the trade picture. The dollar is expected to fall on a trade-weighted basis from 97.0 in 2006 to 95.3 in 2007, and drop from an average of $1.26 per Euro in 2006 to $1.28 next year." As we see now, that prediction was conservative, with the euro at $1.38 today. (Of course, countries whose currencies are tied to the U.S. dollar have seen their global competitiveness improved, too-- notably China.)

For nanotech ventures, this is a welcome trend for their export ambitions.