Pull that Apple iPod Nano out of your pocket -- or out of your teenager's pocket -- and have a look. Has any product done more to make nanotechnology a mainstream buzzword than Apple? Of course, while small, the iPod isn't actually a nanoscale product. It may have nanotechnology inside -- some consumer electronics already do. But there's certainly more on the horizon, some as near term as next week's Top 40, and others a decade of Grammy awards away.
Let's start in my area of expertise -- coatings. As electronics get smaller, they get jangled with the coins in your pockets, battered around in briefcases, and dumped out of backpacks. Ever noticed how scratched and marred they can get? (Side note: iPod cases were a US $412 million market in 2005.) Good news -- there are new protective nano-coatings available, making the move from precision optics and optical storage media, to electronics. Some are super-thin, super-strong coatings, others include nanoparticles to enhance scratch-resistance.
Those better-protected screens are going to get clearer over the next few years, too. Did you know that optometrists are seeing patients in their 30s who are suffering eyestrain from squinting at credit-card sized electronic screens? Luckily, various companies in the U.S. and elsewhere are working on ways to improve the clarity, brightness and contrast of screens. One method involves using carbon nanotubes to shoot electrons at the screen, creating the better sharpness traditional CRT screens provide in an LCD.
These days, cell phones are becoming the uber-electronica: music devices, cameras and PDAs in one. Easy to love -- until they start ringing in a movie theater. There are companies at work on radio-frequency shielding coatings for use in buildings to take care of that problem. Nanomaterials in paint could keep cell phone waves from entering a theater. It can shield wireless networks, too, which allow companies to secure their networks or charge you for tapping into them. The next step? Why not put shielding coatings on the devices themselves to prevent electromagnetic emissions output? That could prevent the interference created when you hold your cell phone too close to a microphone or computer. It could allay the fears some folks have about electromagnetic waves and health, too.
Now let's take a look inside your electronics in search of nano. If an "earpod nano" is ever to be a reality, components are going to have to get smaller. And it's not as far off as you think. Nano-optic components are being manufactured today will shortly be the optical pick-up unit for CD and DVD players. Circuitry also continues to challenge Moore's Law thanks to nanotechnology. Look for the high-speed, conductive ink that can be used for printing consumer electronics circuitry. At 500 nanometers to 2 microns thick and printed on plastic it's a next step in lighter, thinner, smaller.
The last frontier in nano-izing electronics may be batteries. There's a constant balancing act between increasing battery life and decreasing size and weight. Add to that the added complication that most batteries are optimized for either energy bursts (think camera flash) or constant flow (think laptop), while many of our devices need both (think cell phone as flash camera). A new type of lithium-ion battery developed for battery-powered power tools may open the door to better electronics batteries. Several technologies and companies are claiming increases in battery life as much as 10x, able to handle the power bursts needed in tools, and be recharged in about 10 minutes.
So what do you do while you wait for the next quantum leap in nano electronics? Try a little one. Pick up one of the jackets shown at February's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the one with the "smart touchpad" made of conductive fabric imbedded directly into the fabric. Pop your iPod in the pocket, press the play button on your sleeve and let the music inspire you to big small thoughts.
Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].