Digital Devices to Enhance Nanotechnology
As technology advances, so does the need for more powerful and efficient power sources that can keep up with computing demands while remaining scalable and inexpensive. New nanotechnology innovations are opening the door to the technology of the future.
Artificial neural networks are vital to developing computing abilities such as pattern recognition at levels on par with humans. Nanoscale devices called memristors (rhymes with ancestors) might be the answer to creating truly functional artificial brains. Memristors control power flow, remember charge, and are tiny and inexpensive. Scientists at the University of Southampton have shown that memristors can “learn” information without assistance and process data in real time, making them a potential foundation for the next generation of the Internet of Things.
The silicon carbon transistors found in conventional computer chips aren’t efficient enough to keep up with the performance requirements demanded by such chips. Nearly 20 years ago, nanotubes—minuscule rolls of carbon sheets—were discovered to be much more efficient. However, there have been several roadblocks to manufacturing functional nanotubes. To connect the nanotubes with the metal contacts needed to conduct energy, he created a new way to fuse them together at the nanotubes’ ends. IBM plans to replace silicon carbon transistors with nanotube transistors within the next decade, banking on much better performance at a fraction of the power use.
Microcable Power Textile
The next wave of electronics will require lightweight, efficient, and inexpensive power sources. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a potential solution: a textile that can produce power using nothing but the sun and human body motion.
The researchers used polymer fibers to make solar cells, and then wove the cells with fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerators (materials that become electrically charged when in contact with each other), which create energy from motion. The resulting fabric is only 320 micrometers thick—approximately one-third of a millimeter—and could be integrated into items such as tents and clothing to power devices like phones and wearables.
Testing for disease is often a race against time, especially when trying to prevent potential outbreaks, or when quick treatment is crucial. These nanotechnology devices enable testing that’s efficient, inexpensive, and quick, producing real-time results that could help to stop epidemics in their tracks.
Modern medicine has made many once-endemic diseases, like polio and tuberculosis, rare. But sometimes bacteria and microorganisms mutate into “superbugs,” rendering conventional treatments ineffective. The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to humans.
Quickly testing bacteria for drug resistance is crucial, but the usual ways to grow and test bacteria samples in a lab take time. Researchers at the University of Alberta have created a nanoscale device that can test samples on site, in real time.
The device captures bacteria from a sample using a minuscule cantilever, which sends the sample through a channel where receptors identify the bacteria type. The bacteria are then exposed to antibiotics, and the reaction indicates whether they are treatable or antibiotic-resistant. Another advantage, given that sometimes only minuscule samples are available: the device can be used to test samples millions of times smaller than a raindrop.
Testing for cancer and infectious diseases can currently mean waiting for hours before lab results are available. But researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, the California NanoSystems Institute, and the David Geffen School of Medicine collaborated to discover a faster method to test for the presence of proteins in body fluids that indicate cancer or other diseases.
The new test uses DNA nanotechnology—which exploits DNA’s chemical and physical attributes rather than its genes—to trigger a molecular chain reaction if disease-related proteins are present. The results appear in about 10 minutes, and the test can be done in a doctor’s office, removing the need for a separate hospital visit. The researchers have successfully tested for flu, with plans to test for diseases characterized by more complex protein structures. Eventually, they want to integrate the technology into a handheld reader, which could become the go-to device in every doctor’s office.