Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Future of Electronics

Earlier this week, I heard a very interesting research presentation as given by a professor from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. I thought I'd share some of my thoughts from the presentation with you.

The professor's research was over nanomolecular electronics. For the unaware, nanoscience involves mechanisms and materials that are scaled in down in the nanometers. We're talking about what happens on the scale of a few molecules in size. What is so incredibly interesting about this area of research is that the properties of materials often change drastically when they're reduced to that level.

The idea of nanomolecular electronics is the ability to create electronic components (circuits, switches, etc.) on the molecular level. Imagine being able to fit the Pentium 8 chip inside a cell of your body, and you can see the potential that such things have.

Well, right now it's potential, anyhow. The field is in its baby steps of getting started. The professor's research was involved in self-assembling nanomolecular electronics. The same way proteins or DNA are "self-assembled" in a cell, the idea is to develop these electronics which assemble themselves. It involved using gold electrodes separated by carbon tube wires, using DNA as a scaffolding on which to build the pathways. There was also a portion about using bacterial phages bound to a semiconducting crystal as a switch of some sort, but I didn't understand this portion.

The consequences of such research could be incredible. Self-assembling electronics would be ridiculously easy to manufacture, although the conditions would be rather delicate. It could be cheap, provided said delicate conditions aren't expensive to maintain. Additionally, the potential for having powerful electronic devices on such a small scale means that you could possibly put incredibly powerful computers into increasingly smaller containers. Desktop computer in your wristwatch? It could happen.

Potential problems? Well, there is the issue of having to meld the nano to the macro. Because nanoscale devices will operate under radically different properties, there might be no easy way to connect them to devices which will make them actually useful. For example, eventually the processor would have to be able to connect to a power supply and to a display device. This might be mitigated if the devices were in solution, but that could bring in other problems. What solvent is in there? Is there a danger of it leaking? Is it dangerous if leaked? Does it need to be cooled in order to function optimally?

Another thought I had regarded using the phages as part of a switching component. While it seems there is a rather specific set of properties the phage can exhibit in order to act as part of the switching component, I still worry about the possibility of a viral weapon being disguised as a simple electronic device. Imagine somebody giving the President a watch that had Ebola swapped in for the usual phages in the switch, and they managed to crack the casing and let the virus loose. Absolute devestation. How possible is it? Probably close to none, but given how little we know about this emerging technology, the possibility must still be considered.

Will this technology be the future of electronics? At least some of them, yes. As this technology develops, it may find only a very specialized market, but there will be uses made of it. Could it potentially change the world? We shall have to wait and see.

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