Microscopic Devices May Have Huge Implications for Information Technology


Hong Kong Researchers Think Small

Source: IDG
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

February 8, 2001

According to IDG, nanotechnology researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) are in the process of creating microscopic devices that may have huge implications for information technology. Some of the small discoveries coming from the physics department are tubes just a few molecules wide, a microwave-absorbing sheet thinner than paper and a clutch that can stop and start a micro-motor without the need for tiny gears. These breakthroughs could make flat-panel displays cheaper, cell phones safer and microdrives more reliable, the researchers said in an interview Friday.

Nanotechnology is the study of tiny devices measuring less than a nanometer - one billionth of a meter. A human hair is typically 30,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology has often been called the key to breakthroughs in medicine and robotics. However, the researchers from HKUST think some of their work could be commercialized in IT hardware.

The ten-year-old university will launch the $1 million Institute of Nanoscience and Technology in May 2001 using faculty from electrical engineering and chemistry departments in addition to the physics team. Nanotechnology experts from top U.S. universities including Princeton, Stanford and UC Berkeley will serve as advisors. The focus of the institute will be pure research.

Over the past year, Assistant Professor Weija Wen has made a white powder made of tiny particles that can be either a fluid or a solid when combined with oil and changes its state when an electrical charge is applied or removed - a property known as electrorheology. Wen's creation is not the first substance that can do this, but the molecular properties of Wen's particles make this fluid much more rigid than those that have gone before, he said. For example, it exceeds the rigidity standard set by General Motors Corp. for use in a clutch, which GM has been researching for over a decade.

In a car, a clutch like this would last longer than a mechanical one, Wen told IDG. In a small hard-disk drive, like those in handheld devices, it would remove the need to make tiny, expensive gears and clutches. If used to replace existing parts, the technology could be commercialized in just two or three years, he added. "As long as IT can't be totally separated from moving parts, you'll need something to transmit force and torque on a micro scale."

Another creation from HKUST comes from Zi-Kang Tang, a lecturer in the physics department. Tang created tiny tubes known as "nanotubes" which represent a step beyond those normally grown in labs today. In the past few years, Tang has found methods of using zeolite crystals as a template for the tubes of graphite, making them smaller, thinner and absolutely uniform, he said. Tang's nanotubes are less than a nanometer in diameter.

Nanotubes are useful for transmitting electrons efficiently and at high speeds, like the cathode-ray tubes in TVs and traditional computer monitors do, except that the electrons in those tubes need a lot of room to travel so they can be amplified. Using nanotubes, a monitor manufacturer could manufacture a CRT nearly as thin as an active-matrix LCD (liquid-crystal display), but much more cheaply and with less power, said Tang.

LCD makers are already developing CRTs like these, but using existing, imperfect nanotubes that tend to lose their brightness in a matter of hours. More perfect nanotubes might be the solution, Tang said. "If they can overcome the lifetime problem, you might see it (in products) next year," Tang told IDG.

Another project in the works is heading toward something that might seem small and simple but which could solve a potentially huge problem. Wen and Department of Physics Head Ping Sheng recently created by accident a flexible material thinner than paper that can absorb 95 percent of the microwaves that hit it.

Wen is envisioning a small shield on a cell phone that users could flip up next to the phone's antenna to shield themselves from radiation. This could end the ongoing debate over the effects of cell-phone radiation on the brain, he said. Whatever the true effects of microwaves, "There's no denying that not having as much exposure is a safer option," Wen said.

The physics department at HKUST has developed strength in nanotechnology over the past several years because it has always focused on the field of condensed metal physics, rather than cosmology or some other aspect of physics, Wen said. Researchers also cooperate with nanotechnology experts in China, where nanotechnology is studied at some major universities, but only through the same academic activities in which they share findings with academics elsewhere in the world.

Private companies will probably have to foot the bill for the research and development that could turn these discoveries into practical devices. Lab funds are relatively scarce and dedicated to more basic science, Wen said. "We're not in this for the money," he said.

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