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.