These are some of the things C. Flynt has been up to, some of our personal lives, some reviews of things we've read, some stuff we've learned.

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Jul, 20, 2014 - Detcon1 Sunday: Nanotechnology

Dr. Charles Dezelah

Science Fiction stories often have a magic technology - something that's new enough that even the scientists working in the field don't really know where it will lead. In the 1920s, the electromagnetic spectrum was new, and E.E. "Doc" Smith used rays to heat, cool, push and pull objects whenever he needed something done. In the 1940s and '50s, Atomic Energy would power everything from Isher's energy weapons to Heinlein's spacecraft, not to mention creating the occaisional big green monster. In the 1970s and 1980s, an Artificial Intelligence would be a man's best friend or worst enemy.

Today, Nanobots are the magic technology that can eat cities, repair and enhance your body, let you ooze through keyholes and reassemble on the other side or anything your little plot desires.

In the real world, nanotech won't do that sort of thing, and probably never will. Dr. Charles Dezelah introduced folks to real-world micro- and nano-technology.

Expecting mostly folks who watched Star Trek, he'd prepared a talk aimed at people with limited understanding of the field, with a lot of introductory material. A third of the way through the hour, when he asked how many were familiar with "Moore's Law", 95% of the audience raised their hands. He immediately shifted gears to provide good techie stuff, but didn't have enough time to cover as much as he'd have liked.

Dr. Dezelah's projects are related to semiconductor manufacturing, so that was the primary application he discussed.

Nano- and micro-devices are frequently larger than a few nanometers or a few micrometers in size, but they will have at least one dimension that's most easily measured in that unit. For instance, a carbon nano-tube is a few nanometers in diameter, but could potentially be fabricated many meters long. Today, you can buy carbon nano-tubes from Sigma-Aldrich that are 0.7 nm in diameter and up to 1 micrometer long.

Nano- and micro-devices are categorized by the number of dimensions they have that are not in the order of magnitude that is described.

  • 0D - All dimensions are in the nanometer range
  • 1D - a single dimension is larger than nanometers. A nanotube is an example of this
  • 2D - Two of the dimensions are larger than nanometers. This would be a film that could be many meters in area, but under 1 micron thick.
  • 3D - There is work being done with clusters of 0D nano devices, or stacks of 2D films.

At the micro scale, the technology has moved from early adopters and researchers to common consumer devices. Modern consumer devices use a lot of MEMS technology - Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems.

Examples include the motion and position sensors in cell phones and tablets. The sensors are a few micrometers in size using piezoelectric, capacitance or inductance to register when a tiny chunk of metal has moved from a neutral position. You could buy some today from companies like Micro Epsilon

The DLP technology projectors use micro-scale mirrors, mounted on tiny axles that can be rotated by a static electricity charge to either reflect a tiny beam of light onto a screen, or deflect it away from the viewing screen. A DLP projector will have an array of millions of tiny, electrically rotated mirrors.

Surface chemistry effects at the micro scale can detect small amounts of various chemicals like toxic gasses, sugar/insulin levels, etc. This is an area where the devices are being tested and early adopters are using them, but they haven't hit the mass-commercial scale.

Nano-scale electro mechanical devices (NEMS) exist in the lab today, and might be in common use by 2020.

Nano-scale technology is used in the electronics field. A single transistor in a semiconductor has shrunk from hundreds of microns in the 1970s to 13 nm in the newest chips coming out today.

Dr. Dezelah described the process used to create modern computer chips: Etch, deposit a new layer, perform another etch, repeat. A detailed overview is available here.

The wonder material for nano-tech is graphene: pure carbon arranged in hexagons (the standard ring structure for carbon) and then either wrapped into a tube or spread out as a sheet. These are very strong along the plane with very good electrical conducting properties.

Carbon nano-tubes could be the replacement for the copper layer that's currently used to connect transistors in a silicon chip.

My take-away is that real-world nanotech will be much more limited than we see with Star Trek and Terminator, but will probably be used for things nobody is guessing today. The talk was a good introduction. It gave me the vocabulary to hit the net and read more of the articles.

Some of the balognium in Misrouted is nanotech related. This session gave me a few ideas for how to refine the concepts and convinced me that there's nothing impossible in the near-term future uses I'm postulating for the story.