TCS Daily

Small Is Beautiful

By Duane D. Freese - January 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Mankind's concern with size has resulted in many off-color jokes, but the fact is that in technology and telecommunications, the best things often come in the smallest packages.
So breakthroughs in technologies based on a billionth of a meter -- about a millionth the diameter of a hair -- are worth cheering. But with a few caveats.

The basic idea of nanotechnology is to create molecular-sized machines that can make materials an atom or molecule at a time. These materials, in turn, would reproduce, creating materials of such precision that a lot of the wasted heat and friction in current machinery could be eliminated.

As with the computer and semiconductor revolution, the key point of going smaller is ultimately to make things cheaper and more efficient. And two breakthroughs in the last months of the year emphasize how this technology may just be ready to take off.

Crystal Delight

On Nov. 16, NEC Research Institute and Princeton University announced a breakthrough in the making of photonic band gap crystals. These crystals, at 1/100,000th the size of a human hair, could provide a more efficient means to manipulate light pulses in fiber optic lines without the cumbersome switches now needed.

Current switches in fiber optics networks must change light pulses into electronic signals and then back again to retransmit them. This diminishes performance, and photonic switches would eliminate that problem.

The problem is that making band gap crystals for such switching has been incredibly expensive. After all, imagine the quality control needed on items so tiny. The NEC/Princeton researchers, though, have developed a method akin to nature's own of growing opals and then grafting them on a wafer.
"Once on the wafer, it is possible to use many of the standard tools of the electronics industry to pattern the material into a photonic device," said Yuri Vlasov, one of the NEC researchers. With some application, we can imagine these switches turning the lights on much of the dark fiber on high-speed networks now out there, and at costs less than those broadband providers now must charge to make a profit.

Christmas Gift

The second great breakthrough was made known Christmas Day. A group of University of Oklahoma professors were awarded a patent for a method of producing nanotubes that by their estimates would reduce the cost of the lightweight yet 100-times-stronger-than-steel superconducting material from $500 a gram to $6 a gram.
Jeffrey Harwell, executive associate dean of Oklahoma's Engineering Department, estimates that within seven years, the cost of using nanotubes will equal that of using aluminum. He hopes to lure investors to provide the university $2 million for equipment to produce nanotubes.

They may have some catching up to do. Japan's Mitsui & Co., two days after Oklahoma's announcement, announced its own plans to spend nearly $16 million to build a test plant to produce nanotubes at an unheard of price of about 10,000 yen to the kilogram. That works out to 7.6 cents a gram.

No doubt there are some qualitative differences between the nanotubes the University of Oklahoma and Mitsui hope to make - Mitsui's are for going into super-strong plastics for cars and fuel cells, hardly precision materials as needed in making faster computer chips.

Big Enough for Congress

Yet, the rapid advance in the technology raises questions about efforts underway in Congress to boost federal spending on research. Such spending has swelled from $200 million in 2000 to $422 million in 2001, and the Bush administration is seeking $518 million for it in 2002.

Politicians and activists are getting into the act and pushing for more money. The Progressive Policy Institute and its favorite son, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., plan to present legislation in February. Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came on board in December as honorary chairman of the NanoBusinesss Alliance.

The federal government clearly has a role in funding basic research that serves a national need - particularly defense.

But as technology moves from the lab into actual practice, government ought to step back. Why? For starters, the results will be better. The federal government's partnership with the auto industry on batteries and zero-emission vehicles, for example, has produced few breakthroughs. Collaboration between U.S. and Japanese automakers on their own has produced greater technological advances.

Computer chipmakers such as Intel don't need government help to apply nanotechnology to chipmaking. Nor do auto suppliers need help applying it to building better cars. Nor do telecom companies need any incentive to invest in technologies that will cut the costs for them to deliver services.

As the potential for nanotechnology moves out of the lab, government spending ought to mimic the technology - and shrink.

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