Dial N for Nano

Say hello to smarter smartphones. And goodbye to anemic battery life.

Remember when the phone in your pocket was just a phone? Now it's a tiny computer for checking your email, finding a great restaurant with some new app, or playing Angry Birds. Is it any wonder we call them smartphones? And it's estimated that half of all mobile phone users will have them by year end.

So we're in smartphone nirvana, right? Not even close. All that computing power gobbles battery power. The phone charge that used to last you two or three days may need topping off before the workday is out. In fact, in a recent TopTenReview.com look at mobiles, not even one got their highest 4-star rating on battery life. And users of the new iPhone 5 with the iOS5 operating system are so angry about their battery gobbler, Apple is working on a software update to try to reduce battery drain.

What's more, it seems that smartphone apps are like potato chips - we're constantly hungry for more. There are over a million apps available right now -- yes, a million -- for various types of phones. Of course, to assure you enjoy them all, we'll need more computing power. And more battery power, too.

What to do? Mobile phone developers everywhere are looking at nanotechnology as the answer to their 911 call. Nano-thinking is what it takes to keeping squeezing all that computing power down into a sleek bit gadgetry that keeps going and going and going.

Let's start with a new microscope developed by the Department of Energy with the University of California, Berkeley. Called SHARP, for Semiconductor High-NA Actinic Reticle Review Project, it enables the use of extreme ultraviolet light in the photolithography that deposits circuits on chips. EUV light has a wavelength of just 13.5 nanometers, 40 times narrower than visible light, which drives the current limit to chip density. Some predict, with SHARP, they can get down to dimensions of 8 nanometers, providing an incredible multiplier to the amount of functionality that can be added to semiconductors.

Carbon nanotubes may offer another solution. Transistors in integrated circuits are connected with tiny copper wires. As electronics get smaller, these wires must get thinner, and that lessens their ability to handle the current flow. Carbon nanotubes, at about 4 nanometers in diameter, and retain the strength to manage the current without breakdown.

Carbon nanotubes are also being researched as a way to address battery life problems. We've talked here before about how nanoscale materials are finding their way into fuel cells and lithium batteries. These tiny particles offer more surface area for a battery's catalytic reaction to take place, so you get more juice from less material or a smaller area. Carbon nanotubes? They turbo-charge the process.

And at Rice University they're working on developing a battery in a nanowire of about 150 nanometers. The wires are bundled together into a battery of about 50 microns. Eighty of them would fit on an ant's back.

And for a quick look to the more distant horizon, one phone maker is looking at flexible screen models, and promising flexible screen tablets by next year. The eventual specs for this little wonder include nanowire "grass" to harvest solar energy, a nanoscale structure that allows the screen to stretch and even be folded and wrapped around the wrist, bracelet style. And as a measure of the computing power, it promises that 10,000 of its transistors will fit on the hair of a fly.

But here's the one I'm waiting for. A university team may have developed a nanomaterial that can be changed when an electrical signal is applied to it, so the circuitry of a device can be upgraded on the fly. Instead of needing a new phone or a new chip - you'll just need a zap.

So when the day comes that you're using your smartphone to watch a movie, type a report, manage the output of your manufacturing facility and text your teenager to be home before midnight, hear this: you've got nanotechnology on the line.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd.

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