As technology advances, so does the need for more powerful and efficient power sources that can keep up with computing demands while remaining scalable and inexpensive. New nanotechnology innovations are opening the door to the technology of the future.
Artificial neural networks are vital to developing computing abilities such as pattern recognition at levels on par with humans. Nanoscale devices called memristors (rhymes with ancestors) might be the answer to creating truly functional artificial brains. Memristors control power flow, remember charge, and are tiny and inexpensive. Scientists at the University of Southampton have shown that memristors can “learn” information without assistance and process data in real time, making them a potential foundation for the next generation of the Internet of Things (IoT).
The silicon carbon transistors found in conventional computer chips aren’t efficient enough to keep up with the performance requirements demanded by such chips. Nearly 20 years ago, nanotubes—minuscule rolls of carbon sheets—were discovered to be much more efficient. However, there have been several roadblocks to manufacturing functional nanotubes.
Qing Cao, a researcher at IBM, recently figured out how to solve one of those problems: getting an electrical current to a nanotube. To connect the nanotubes with the metal contacts needed to conduct energy, he created a new way to fuse them together at the nanotubes’ ends. IBM plans to replace silicon carbon transistors with nanotube transistors within the next decade, banking on much better performance at a fraction of the power use.
Microcable Power Textile
The next wave of electronics will require lightweight, efficient, and inexpensive power sources. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created a potential solution: a textile that can produce power using nothing but the sun and human body motion.
The researchers used polymer fibers to make solar cells, and then wove the cells with fiber-based triboelectric nanogenerators (materials that become electrically charged when in contact with each other), which create energy from motion. The resulting fabric is only 320 micrometers thick—approximately one-third of a millimeter—and could be integrated into items such as tents and clothing to power devices like phones and wearables.
Testing for disease is often a race against time, especially when trying to prevent potential outbreaks, or when quick treatment is crucial. These nanotechnology devices enable testing that’s efficient, inexpensive, and quick, producing real-time results that could help to stop epidemics in their tracks.
Modern medicine has made many once-endemic diseases, like polio and tuberculosis, rare. But sometimes bacteria and microorganisms mutate into “superbugs,” rendering conventional treatments ineffective. The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to humans.
Quickly testing bacteria for drug resistance is crucial, but the usual ways to grow and test bacteria samples in a lab take time. Researchers at the University of Alberta have created a nanoscale device that can test samples on site, in real time.
The device captures bacteria from a sample using a minuscule cantilever, which sends the sample through a channel where receptors identify the bacteria type. The bacteria are then exposed to antibiotics, and the reaction indicates whether they are treatable or antibiotic-resistant. Another advantage, given that sometimes only minuscule samples are available: the device can be used to test samples millions of times smaller than a raindrop.
Testing for cancer and infectious diseases can currently mean waiting for hours before lab results are available. But researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied
Science, the California NanoSystems Institute, and the David Geffen School of Medicine collaborated to discover a faster method to test for the presence of proteins in body fluids that indicate cancer or other diseases.
The new test uses DNA nanotechnology—which exploits DNA’s chemical and physical attributes rather than its genes—to trigger a molecular chain reaction if disease-related proteins are present. The results appear in about 10 minutes, and the test can be done in a doctor’s office, removing the need for a separate hospital visit. The researchers have successfully tested for flu, with plans to test for diseases characterized by more complex protein structures. Eventually, they want to integrate the technology into a handheld reader, which could become the go-to device in every doctor’s office.
Millions of people across the globe face serious healthcare challenges, including threats from unsanitary water and outbreaks of diseases for which vaccines are already available. To make treatment quicker and more effective, novel nanotechnology devices are being applied to both of these major public health needs.
Nanostructured Water Disinfection
Low-tech methods for killing waterborne bacteria—like boiling or letting water sit in a plastic bottle in the sun to absorb microbe-zapping UV rays—are inefficient, time consuming, and inconsistent.
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and at Stanford University have created a riff on the water bottle method that’s much quicker, but still easy to use. Their nanostructure device is made from extremely thin layers of an industrial lubricant called molybdenum disulfide. When the device is placed in a container of dirty water and subjected to sunlight, it produces bacteria-destroying chemicals, like hydrogen peroxide, that make the water safe to drink in 20 minutes. Once the water is clean, the chemicals dissolve.
Nanopatches offer a needle-free way to deliver vaccines for infectious diseases like tuberculosis and polio. The tiny 1cm2 silicon square, inserted under the skin using a spring-loaded device, contains an array of about 20,000 tiny spikes that deliver vaccine directly into key immune cells. It’s more efficient than a needle, and it requires less vaccine to be effective. In addition, nanopatches don’t need to be kept cold to preserve the vaccine, because the design ensures temperature stability—a potential boon for public health in places without access to consistent refrigeration. And trypanophobics—people who fear needles—will be happy: the tiny, spiky grid doesn’t hit nerve endings like a conventional syringe does, so using it is pain free.
University of Queensland biomechanical scientist Professor Mark Kendall won the CSL Young Florey Medal—named after the co-inventor of penicillin—for his innovation, which took 20 years to reach fruition. The World Health Organization plans to use it in a polio vaccine study in Cuba this year.
Danielle Beurteaux is a New York-based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy.