How Reporting on a Nanomaterial Phenomenon Leads to Confusion about Nanotechnology's Capabilities

Accurate but misleading mainstream news reporting of nanotechnology is one of the key sources of public misperceptions on nanotechnology and its capabilities

2 min read
How Reporting on a Nanomaterial Phenomenon Leads to Confusion about Nanotechnology's Capabilities

As children many of us played the game that is known by various names but we called it “Telephone” in which a child whispers a message to another child, and the message travels throughout the class until you finally see how the telephone message changes.

I thought of this game when I saw that Twitter was buzzing yesterday with news that “MIT researchers discover a new energy source: nanotechnology”. If you ever wondered why nanotechnology has been saddled with unrealistic expectations in alternative energy applications, the evolution of this story is instructive for discerning one of the causes.

After clicking on the article I was led to an article on CNN tech news that offered up some more details on the story. There is nothing inaccurate about the story, but it is somewhat misleading. It seems to gloss over the fact that the energy is created by a chemical reaction that is then amplified by the carbon nanotubes to create an energy wave. The only indication we get in the article that there is a chemical reaction behind this is this: “After coating these tiny wires with a layer of fuel…”

I do not want to diminish the importance of actually creating this previously theoretical calculation of  “a self-propagating reactive wave can be driven along its [a carbon nanotube’s] length”. The research led by Michael Strano and his researchers at MIT, which was reported last week in Nature’s Materials Journal, addresses what I believe to an application area ripe for nanotechnology’s capabilities: improving batteries for laptops and personal electronics.

But couldn’t the headlines have been more along the lines of: material phenomenon that amplifies power from chemical reactions could impact powering of personal electronic devices. Instead we get: nanotechnology is a new energy source.

If you think I might be a little overboard on caution when describing these discoveries in the news, take a look at the comments on the CNN story. I really feel sorry for a fair number of the people who really ended up confused about what this is all about.

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How the First Transistor Worked

Even its inventors didn’t fully understand the point-contact transistor

12 min read
A phot of an outstretched hand with several transistors in the palm of it.

A 1955 AT&T publicity photo shows [in palm, from left] a phototransistor, a junction transistor, and a point-contact transistor.


The vacuum-tube triode wasn’t quite 20 years old when physicists began trying to create its successor, and the stakes were huge. Not only had the triode made long-distance telephony and movie sound possible, it was driving the entire enterprise of commercial radio, an industry worth more than a billion dollars in 1929. But vacuum tubes were power-hungry and fragile. If a more rugged, reliable, and efficient alternative to the triode could be found, the rewards would be immense.

The goal was a three-terminal device made out of semiconductors that would accept a low-current signal into an input terminal and use it to control the flow of a larger current flowing between two other terminals, thereby amplifying the original signal. The underlying principle of such a device would be something called the field effect—the ability of electric fields to modulate the electrical conductivity of semiconductor materials. The field effect was already well known in those days, thanks to diodes and related research on semiconductors.

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