Nanotech Will Bring the World to Its Ears

Tiny devices like radios and "electric corneas" could have a huge impact on the way people communicate in the future, says Bell Labs.

New York—Researchers see nanotechnology in the future as a bridge to truly ubiquitous communications.

Jeffrey Jaffe, the president of Lucent Technologies Inc.s Bell Labs Research and Advanced Technologies operation, spoke at the NanoBusiness Conference, a gathering of nanotechnology researchers, venture capitalists and Wall Street analysts in Manhattan.

During his keynote address, Jaffe said that the pieces are falling in place to create nanotechnology-enabled communications networks that allow people to converse over great distances, while feeling as if theyre in the same room.

Nanotechnology, which is broadly defined as working with materials on a sub-100 nanometer scale, is expected to yield advances in semiconductors—where many anticipate that new materials and manufacturing techniques will augment and eventually replace todays silicon-based manufacturing technologies, which face scientific and economic roadblocks.

Nanotechnology is also expected to bring improvements in medicine and communications in the next three to five years, speakers at the conference have said.

Ultimately, according to Jaffes vision, tiny wireless transmitters, cameras and even sensors that can register odors could be strung together and connected to wider networks to allow people conversing virtually to hear, feel and smell all the same things, despite being physically separated.

Using the technology this way, he said, would allow new ways of meeting and sharing information for businesses, without incurring huge travel costs, as well as change how products are sold.

"Wouldnt it be nice if we didnt have to travel to New York? We could all be in our homes? We could have the experience of this conference without all the travel involved, all the headaches," he said.

Ultimately, Jaffe said, "I want to be able to communicate with anyone or any group of people … no matter where I am, without having to use devices. That capability transforms communications, and since thats one of the most basic things we do as human beings, it transforms life."

Jaffes vision sounds like science fiction. But the ability to create the building blocks that will make it possible is here today, thanks to nanotechnology research taking place at Bell Labs, which is headquartered in Murray Hill, N.J.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about technology on display at the NanoBusiness Conference.

The new material properties and manufacturing techniques provided by the technology are helping to creating ultrasmall sensors that pick up voices, images or other data and allow it to be transmitted.

"It doesnt require invention to get this capability at a very elemental level—of course to build it out is another thing," he said. "Were working across the spectrum. But a lot of what were working on both at system level and technology level has very near-term applications."

Bell Labs is developing tiny radios and microphones, as well as so-called electronic corneas, which are tiny cameras, as well as technology that could enhance batteries. These are technologies that would be used separately at first, but which may one day be combined to create a unified communication system as suggested by Jaffe.

The labs "cell phone" project, for example, is a transmitter thats small enough to fit inside a single animal cell.

"This is a really small phone," Jaffe quipped. "We dont have an immediate application for this one. But what this is trying to do is drive the limit of the technology … if we can get a transmitter thats small enough to fit inside a living animal cell, that means this idea of enabling the world is not just a pipe dream. We can put them everywhere."

Bell Labs is also working on tiny microphones, which can be added cheaply and easily to electronics devices, and ultrasensitive magnetometers, which can be used to create perimeters. Meanwhile, its "electronic cornea," which uses a liquid as a lens to capture images, can be focused and aimed using electricity, he said.

Another of the labs research areas is microfluidics. A structure called "NanoGrass," which looks like a tiny pegboard, can be used to combine or separate materials with electricity. This item has implications for chip cooling and also for batteries, Jaffe said. It could help keep a battery from discharging.

/zimages/6/28571.gifRead more here about science-fiction-style possiblities such as nanorobots.

Microsensors, such as an electronic nose or a device the lab calls a Photonics Crystal Mid-Infrared Integrated Microsensor, are farther out.

Where much of the technology is still at the lab stage, it is working its way to market through things such as partnerships. Bell Labs is working with mPhase Technologies Inc., of Norwalk, Conn., on magnetic perimeter sensors and also using NanoGrass in batteries.

This technology might also hit the market in Lucent products or, where appropriate, in spinoff companies, Jaffe said.

"This is something that could happen," Jaffe said. "Theres very little in the way of making it happen if we want it to. It would be expensive to get it out there, but most of the components are there already."

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