CNBC's Jim Goldman and Candice Tahi contributed to this story.
Beyond the cutting edge products being created with nanotechnology, just beyond the horizon, lies even more technology that’s not quite available. These are the kinds of products that researchers are working on that may change our lives two, three, five years down the line. And these products are so small you need extremely powerful electron and tunneling microscopes just to see them.
The list includes atmospheric sensors no bigger than specks of dust and a light bulb that never burns out.
Researchers at the University of Texas discovered that compressing specks of silicon mixed in a secret solution, excited by ultra-violet light, reduces the space for the electrons inside the silicon to move. The energy from those electrons decreases based on the distance they travel. So the more confined the space, the more concentrated the energy. And the brighter these electrons glow.
At InnovaLight, they are working on making light emitting diodes — or light bulbs that would never burn out.
“Theoretically, silicon can last forever as a light emitter,” said Paul Thurk, InnovaLight CEO. “For next-generation lighting, the benchmark is to get something that lasts 50,000 or 100,000 hours. That’s over 30 years of usage.”
In Emeryville Calif. a company called Nanomix is using carbon nanotubes inside sensors to detect individual molecules of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and other gases, shrinking room-sized equipment into something the size of an employee name-tag. The sensor can alert lab workers to the presence of hazardous gases far sooner than what's available today. And it can give emergency workers unprecedented capabilities out in the field, to save lives.
“Information that's available in the operating room, for example, can now be obtained in an ambulance,” said Nanomix CEO David McDonald. “We take a sensing device that's about the size of a coffee can and reduce it down to a chip about the size of the pupil of your eye.”
Nanomix says the technology will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales over the next five years.
CrossBow, a San Jose, Calif.- based company, is taking sensors a step further. Today, its sensors are about the size of a nickel crammed with a battery, a chip, and a radio transmitter. But soon, scientists say they'll be no bigger than dust particles. These so-called “smart dust” devices — virtually invisible to the naked eye — can be attached to consumer products, people, and animals — even scattered on a battlefield, wirelessly tracking atmospheric, environmental and biological data.
“Smart dust are these tiny little sensors that have built-in radios so that they can communicate with the outside world,” said CrossBow CEO Michael Horton. “The ultimate goal is what we call ‘sensor ubiquity.’”
The ultimate goal for the nano innovators is introducing their technologies to a host of industries — helping them grow by helping them shrink.
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