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The smallest of things

Mon, 02/28/2005 - 7:00pm
Thomas G. Robinson, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.

The upcoming remake of the 1952 movie based on H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" made me think of how, in that film, it was the smallest of things that ultimately took down the murderous monsters from the Red Planet. Also, it is still amazing to me even today how splitting the smallest particles can create the greatest of energies. Or, how even as we continue to upsize our SUVs, it is the miniaturization of components in these giant vehicles that provides more and more convenience and safety features, such as GPS-based mapping systems and critical system sensors.

For the last decade or so, the world of science (and science fiction, for that matter) has been increasingly enamored by the microscopic world of nanotechnology. Many believe that nanotechnology, essentially the science of creating, manipulating and manufacturing materials on an atomic and molecular scale (approximately one-billionth of an inch) will provide the next great leap in telecommunications technology, through a variety of initiatives.

One of the key emerging disciplines is nanophotonics and nano-optics. Basically, nano-optics deals with the properties of light when it interacts with structures far smaller than a wavelength of light. This creates a whole world of optical subcomponents known as SOEs (Subwavelength Optical Elements). The research to date on the usable properties of such SOEs has shown that it is possible to develop nanostructures that reliably replicate these properties. Because of this, optical components can be developed with greater capabilities than currently available, in much smaller dimensions, with far less power consumption, and ultimately at significantly less cost.

The implications are staggering when you consider how such technologies can be applied to fiber transport systems. In fact, work is already underway at a number of companies focusing on nano-optics to apply such technology to polarization, detector and filter components. These nanostructures are destined to enable more and more information to travel greater and greater distances on a single strand of fiber. Additionally, nanostructures will be able to be applied to end user components that will facilitate low-cost, low-profile and high-capacity optical transceivers and switches for customer premises optical devices. Initially, these devices will likely be optronic (optical and electronic) equipment that will enable, in a size and cost less than today's set-top gateways, the transmission and reception of multi-gigabits worth of information. Ultimately, it is forecast that the use of nanostructures and nanomanufacturing techniques will result in the complete end-to-end optical transport of signals that are connected to optically driven appliances in the consumer's home.

Another key area is the manufacture of nanocomposites. For a long time, high-frequency inductive components that are used to enable high performance in telecommunications and information technology equipment have had significant limitations concerning power consumption and further miniaturization. Moreover, the metallic alloys that would counteract these problems could not be used at high frequencies. However, developing composite materials on a nanoscale results in the production of magnetic particles small enough to enable the newly-created materials to work effectively at high frequencies. Ultimately, the use of such nanomagnetic materials will result in high-frequency inductive components that will not only be smaller and allow for increased miniaturization, but will cost less, improve performance and lower power consumption.

An important concept to understand related to nanomagnetics is electron spin current. All of us are familiar with the role charge current plays in the field of electronics, but on a nanoscale, electron spin can also be harnessed and the energy utilized. The field of spin electronics, or "spintronics," has been around for about the last decade as well, but has seen much more play recently as scientists develop techniques to employ electron spin, utilize spin current and create new mechanisms by combining the effects of charge current and spin current. As this science is applied to telecommunications, it will mean vastly increased capabilities while continuing miniaturization of a wide variety of telecommunications systems including satellite, cell phones and wireless computing, significantly increasing our ability to access and provide high-capacity communications from anywhere we happen to be.

Another term to get to know is "dynamic self assembly." Specifically, consumer products, medical, food and other companies have known the potential uses of fluids based on nanostructures since the early days of nanotechnological research. More recently, though, there have been significant developments in the area of self-assembly within such nanostructured fluids. Specifically, scientists have observed that molecules in such fluids exhibit the ability to assemble themselves into new nanoscale materials. If this property can be properly harnessed and directed, it opens a whole realm of possibilities for the development of new and powerful materials and the advent of incredibly efficient and cost-effective nanomanufacturing.

The real science of dynamic self-assembly makes me think of the science fiction of Michael Crichton's book "Prey," where nanoparticles were set to take over the world. That thought is enough to invoke a sense of wary caution when pursuing nanotechnological innovation. However, if we look at our experience with nuclear energy, for example, there has always been a fine balance between seeing it as a clean, near limitless energy source with great hopes for an evolution from fission to fusion, versus the dark projections of nuclear winter. Similarly, if we can keep nanotechnology's potential evil twin in check, there are many who believe (including me) that it will drastically enhance our telecommunications future.

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