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Nanowire Thin Film Transistors Impart the Sense of Touch for Artificial Limbs

Imparting the sense of touch to artificial skin for both robotics or for prosthetics of amputees has proven difficult.

However two new solutions have been reported for making an artificial skin that possesses an extremely sensitive sense touch. One comes out of the University of California Berkeley and the other comes ironically from neighbor and rival Stanford University, both of which were reported in the journal Nature Materials.

IEEE Spectrum has a good article this week on the technology and how it is likely to be developed in the short term.

In keeping with the rivalry we get a good run down of the pros and cons of each technology in the BBC article cited above. The Stanford research, led by Zhenan Bao, produces the same pressure sensing as the Berkeley research but with fewer layers by making its nanowire-enabled thin-film transistors (TFTs) pressure sensitive rather than laying the nanowire TFT array onto a pressure-sensitive array.

Despite this advantage, the Berkeley solution has greater flexibility, leading Bao to concede in the article that her group’s approach will need to develop a better conductive rubber.

Both solutions have demonstrated remarkable sensitivity. The artificial skins react to a stimulus in a tenth of a second and in weights ranging five grams per centimeter to 40 times that amount, according to the BBC article. According to the video below, the Stanford development could sense the touch of a butterfly or a drop of water. 

As impressive as this is, perhaps the greatest part for both these lines of research are that they were able to accomplish their results by using fairly inexpensive manufacturing techniques.

In a critique for Nature Materials John Boland, a nanotechnologist from Trinity College Dublin, commented, "Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these studies is how they elegantly demonstrate that it is possible to exploit well-established processing technologies to engineer low-cost innovative solutions to important technical problems."

Carbon Nanotubes Serve as Funnel for Photons on Solar Panels

Nothing excites the imagination of the general public or researchers in the area of alternative energy like solar power does. You can explain until you’re blue in the face how wind power is cheaper per Kwh than solar, or how nanotech is really having an impact now on saving energy as opposed to generating it.

But it all hardly seems to matter. People want to know how nanotech is going to enable solar power. The latest news item comes out of MIT where researchers have formed carbon nanotubes into a kind of antenna that focuses photons onto photovoltaic cells and reportedly concentrates solar energy 100 times more than a regular cell.

According to Michael Strano, the leader of the research team and Charles and Hilda Roddey Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, this development could result in smaller solar arrays.

“Instead of having your whole roof be a photovoltaic cell, you could have little spots that were tiny photovoltaic cells, with antennas that would drive photons into them,” says Michael Strano in the article.

The work was originally published in the Sept. 12 online edition of the journal Nature Materials.

The antennas are made of about 30 billion carbon nanotubes and resemble a fibrous strand with dimensions of 10 micrometers long and four micrometers thick. The fiber has different bandgaps. The inner layer of the fiber has a small bandgap while the outerlayer have a higher bandbap. So when photons hit the antenna all the excitons flow to the center of the fiber thereby concentrating them.

While this is all very far off from even a full-fledged prototype since the researchers have not yet built a photovoltaic cell that could use the antenna, it seems that commercial considerations are already being taken into account with concerns about the price per pound of single-walled carbon nanotubes being discussed.

One would think that a discussion of economic issues like price of raw materials and phrases like “100 times” better than existing technologies would interest funding types. But likely they see 10 years before a ROI and myriad competing technologies and shrug.

Stock Investment Advice for Nanotechnology Seems Cruel

Every now and then there’s a new nanotech investment story that gets circulated around, and the latest comes from a publication called the Street Authority.

It starts out on target by pointing out that 10 years ago after the Internet bubble burst investors were clamoring for a new investment vehicle when along came nanotechnology. This is a point I made myself three years ago, so I am open to accepting this line of thinking.

But the article goes all a bit fuzzy after that with an odd collection of “nanotech” stocks that reminds one of the rather odd practice of creating nanotechnology stock indices. Unfortunately many of the indices I cited three years ago are long since gone, so no more giggles, I’m afraid.

Anyway in this latest abbreviated index we see FEI Company paired up with Altair Nanotech. Really? Now I am well aware that FEI likes to market itself on occasion as the “Nanotech Company”, but the huge microscopy company has remained largely in the semiconductor business.

But even if you didn’t know that, you could just look at the table the reporter has provided and see something is amiss. While FEI currently has a market cap of $668 million, it had revenues of $577 million last year and probably has loads of cash. And in the same table, we get Altair with a market cap of $63 million and 2009 sales of $4.4 million.

Now I am no investment expert like the reporter, but it would seem the Price to Sales ratio is more than a little different between these two companies. My point is that they can’t really both represent speculative stock investments.

But the entire enterprise of providing stock investment advice on so-called nanotech companies is just cruel to small time investors and misses the real reason of why nanotechnology has not been further commercialized than it is.

The real obstacle keeping nanotechnology from having greater success is not because of a lack of mom-and-pop investors in the handful of nanotech penny stocks. Rather the problem preventing nanotechnology from being further commercialized is that private equity (i.e. angel investors, venture capitalists, sovereign funds and banks) just is not investing money outside of high-gain investments like derivatives and the like. And I think we all know where that landed the world economy, never mind nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology in the High-Gloss World of Formula 1

I have discussed previously my misreading of how carbon nanotubes in professional cycling would be limited by the UCI weight restrictions on bicycles. They may not have made the carbon fiber frames that make up the high-end race bikes seen in the Tour de France any lighter, but at the same weight they likely made them stronger. As a result, many of the bikes used in professional cycling have some carbon nanotubes in the materials that make up the frame.


The rules and regulations governing professional motor sport, especially Formula 1, make the weight restrictions of the UCI look like child’s play. Nonetheless the smallest technological advantage in a Formula 1 car can make the difference between World Championships and also-rans. So, there is always market pull in racing for the latest technology. 

While I don’t usually write about conferences until after the event so as not to provide unintended promotion, I was struck by this press release over at Nanowerk. Apparently, The Centre of Excellence in Metrology for Micro and Nanotechnologies, is planning a conference this month at Cranfield University on the topic of how nanotechnologies (i.e. from nanomaterials in composites to microscopy) are further enabling innovation in motor sport.

While it seems there is reason for nanotechnologies to be investigated for use in motor sport, it’s not clear from the program whether this is the current state of affairs, or just could be.

In fact, the agenda seems to offer an odd hodgepodge of topics that seem tangentially related to nanotechnology in motor sport, but don’t offer up something like “McLaren’s use of carbon nanotubes in chasis manufacturing”. Instead we get “Low Carbon Vehicle Initiative and Funding Opportunities”. That doesn’t sound very sporting to me.

I know a thing or two about conferences having produced a few of them myself and one thing you ask yourself when you’re putting together the agenda is: “Who is the audience?” For this one, I couldn’t tell you. But for my part my interest would be to see some cool looking Formula 1 cars or even just parts. The nanotechnology bit, not so much.

How Will Regulations on Nanomaterials Be Enacted?

Certainly within the last five years, or perhaps even longer, whenever anyone raised the future prospects of nanomaterials a discussion of the impact regulations might have had to be included.

The impassioned, albeit often misguided, views of some NGOs on the toxicity of nanoparticles, has led many to consider how regulations might be adopted to mitigate any risk that they might pose.

Over at Nanotech-Now an editorial from John DiLoreto, CEO/Founder of NanoReg, we have at least the way in which these regulations may come into law in the US: not through the Federal government but from the States.

While the Senate continues to work on The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (PDF), which will reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that has remained unchanged since 1976 when it went into law, states may take the responsibility upon themselves of regulating nanoparticles, according to DiLoreto.

There is some history of this scenario in the US as DiLoreto explains. He provides the case of phosphates in laundry detergent. When the Federal government didn’t act, states stepped in and enacted their own laws. With enough states doing the same, it no longer made economic sense for producers to make two different formulas for laundry detergent, one with phosphates and the other without, so they just eliminated the phosphate-containing detergent.

DiLoreto identifies “at least seven states specifically calling out nanomaterials for treatment as "chemicals of concern."” States that he goes on to mention that are currently engaged in some kind of examination of nanomaterials include, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, South Carolina, Wisconsin and California.

It is in California where the regulations look to be the most advanced. The most controversial bits of California’s regulatory project have been the definition of nanomaterials offered by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which considers “materials under 1,000 nm to be nanoscale rather than the more commonly accepted 100 nm.” When this definition is coupled with the view of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) that “all nanomaterials will be considered hazardous” the broad range of regulations that could come forth is staggering.

The prospect of states determining the regulations of nanomaterials on a state-by-state basis, which in turn will decide the fate of nanomaterials’ commercial prospects, seems as though it should be a somewhat scarier proposition for producers than one, over arching set of regulations from the Federal government.

Scaling Up Memristor Development--Changes to Memory Industry Expected

Over at Frogheart, the fascination with the memristor exceeds even my own.

Most recently, the Frogheart blog picked up on a story over at in which it was reported that HP will be partnering in joint developmental research with Korean-based memory chip maker Hynix Semiconductor Inc. to make memristor chips. In the video below, Stanley Williams expects that this joint development will have a pretty significant impact on the memory industry.

 “This will change the memory industry because it’s going to allow us to continue scaling,” says Williams. “In other words to go to higher and higher densities as with flash but actually with a product that has both the capability and capacity we believe to replace both hard disk and DRAM memory in computers.” 

As Williams notes in this video, HP believes Hynix is the partner that will help move this technology from the lab to the fab on a fast track for product development.

Nano-Enabled Autonomous Robot Offered for Cleaning Oil Spills

When the Gulf oil spill hit the news last Spring, I wondered how long it would take for people to turn to nanotechnology for a solution, and whether it could offer one at all.

It seems attempts to use a nanoparticle-based dispersant on the problem caused more controversy than offered a solution.

I was left with the idea that I shared in my comments to the post: “If you want technology to do something in particular, you had better start spending some time and money in getting it to work. If not, you will be left in the situation we are in now where nanotechnology's impact could be somewhere between minimal to none at all.”

While I am not aware of the broader technological work that is now underway to combat oil spills, I have seen an interesting technology out of MIT that uses an autonomous robot equipped with a “thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil.”

According to Francesco Stellacci, a Visiting Professor at MIT, the nano-enabled fabric can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. The material also can be heated up to eliminate the oil from it and then reused.

The system would work by employing a swarm of these oil-capturing robots (thus the name, “Seaswarm”) for cleaning up oil spills. The MIT researchers estimate that 5,000 of these robots working autonomously around the clock for a month could clean up an oil spill the size of the one in the Gulf.

So, the technology is there in prototype. The question now becomes whether an oil company will spend the money to develop it into a real solution. We’ll see. The video below offers more detail on the technology.


Nanotechnology's Shift from R&D to Commercialization Urged

Through the concurrence of a number of events, I am now wondering if we are not seeing a minor shift developing in the way that nanotechnology development is being approached that may in fact lead to a more fundamental one.

The shift that I see developing is one that moves away from simply developing new nanomaterials but to seeing how these nanomaterials may in fact enable new products. Of course, that has always been the idea supposedly, but it has not been clear through funding and research whether this has been encouraged and pursued.

I commented recently on the work of Professor Geoffrey Ozin at the University of Toronto, who has offered a set of recommendations for continued research into nanomaterials that may allow us to actually reap some benefit from them rather than simply stockpiling in an effort to retain research funding.

And now I have read over at Andrew Maynard’s 20/20 Science blog his eloquent preamble in his response to National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategic Plan 2010; Request for Information (FR Doc. 2010–16273) Submitted August 15 2010.

While Maynard’s points are well made, I wonder whether eloquence may be lost on bureaucrats, even of the most enlightened variety. Maynard describes a “changing of context” from the time the NNI was formed 10 years ago when it was supporting research and development to now where nanotechnology is heading towards being “…a significant driver of economic growth and social progress.”

This change leads Maynard to ask whether the institution that has asked the questions is in fact a hindrance or assistance in the further development of nanotechnology.

“With this changing context, it is necessary to consider whether the concepts and expectations embedded within the NNI are still valid, or whether they have become an impediment to progress,” asks Maynard “This is a tough question to ask of such a well-established and influential initiative. But it is one that needs to be addressed if the efforts of the past ten years are to bear fruit.”

I am not sure that urging the leaders of the NNI to undergo some kind of existential questioning of their institution will lead to much more than a shrug and dismissal when it appears that not asking those questions, or at least not understanding the answers, is part of their modus operandi.

Let's hope they're ready to listen.


Reducing Nanotechnology to "Vaporware"

I have to confess to getting more than a small chuckle from a recent blog entry from Scott Locklin, who reduces the entire enterprise of nanotechnology to 25 years of charlatanry.

The criticism takes two forms. In one, the idea of labeling the surface and colloidal science “nanotechnology” is a bit bogus. Secondly, the Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology he characterizes as little more than science fiction.

On the former characterization, he will probably get little more than a shrug from the chemists and advanced material scientists he seems to be assailing. But I imagine the latter critique of Drexler and molecular manufacturing (MNT) will garner him relentless harangues, if my experience with simply discussing the subject, never mind criticizing it, is any indication.

[Editor's note: This paragraph had to be changed to reflect my mix up between Laclan Cranswick and Scott Locklin.] Locklin has even provided a link to Laclan's Cranswick's website, the name of which is not repeatable on this blog (according to the website Cranswick passed away in January of this year) Cranswick's site offered critical views of nanotechnology at least since 2005 (when I first became aware of his work) . The site even made a few references to some items published by the firm I work for that expressed a fair amount of skepticism towards “nanotechnology”.

Now my viewpoint on these objections of Locklin is a bit more tempered than his, albeit the name of this blog is “Nanoclast”. As far as finding it a bit wrong to call advanced material science or chemistry by the term “nanotechnology”, this argument has been offered innumerable times before. And as appealing as it may be to think that this change in nomenclature is the result of some marketing conspiracy, the term does help to focus what is at work here.

Nanotechnology is not just chemistry and advanced material science, it is a zoo of disciplines that have to be brought together at times to develop technologies that are enabled by the bizarre behavior of the world at the nanoscale. This can involve biologists to chemists from physicists to electrical engineers. It is a word that becomes so broad at times that it nearly begins to lose all meaning. But we do need something to delineate this research from merely chemistry because it is not just chemistry. And the term "nanotechnology" is as good as any other.

Now as for his attack on Drexler’s work, one would do better to look at Drexler’s more recent work and views on atomically precise manufacturing rather than to continue to focus on his now quarter-century-old PhD thesis.

I like Locklin’s point of view, and it’s one that I have shared more or less on occasion, albeit not to his degree, but I think the criticism of nanotechnology in its entirety needs to become somewhat more sophisticated if it is to move beyond just broad humor, funny though it may be.

From Doomsayer to Nanotech Investor: The Interesting Path of Bill Joy

It has been argued by a few that the eleventh-hour reversal in the US government’s approach to nanotechnology back in 2000 from a support of molecular manufacturing (MNT) as theorized by Eric Drexler to more of a focus on surface and colloidal science was in part informed by Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine entitled "Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”

Joy’s article laid out a rather grim assessment of our future that saw our most advanced technologies, including nanotechnology (which in this case seems to be the MNT variety), leading to our own destruction. In a country that idolizes either pretty young pop artists or captains of industry, the force of his argument became inescapable for the government leaders holding the purse strings. Over at Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov has captured this turnaround somewhat with the friendly hearings Gore held with Eric Drexler.

To the extent that Joy’s article derailed MNT research and development no one can say for sure, but there is a feeling out there that it was not insignificant. So, I was a bit surprised when I saw over at Frogheart that Christine Peterson was promoting a TED video of Bill Joy on the Foresight Institute’s Nanodot blog.

But the irony doesn’t end there. In the video below, which was filmed back in 2006 and posted in 2008, Joy explains how he had become a venture capitalist, specializing in…nanotechnology. Of course, it was more of the advanced materials variety than the MNT kind, but clearly Mr. Joy knows which side his bread is buttered on and it isn’t the one that entertains doomsday scenarios brought on by technological advancement.


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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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