In tribute to our annual new-technology issue, it seemed appropriate to review some of the technological happenings in our industry. Nanotechnology obviously has an impact on some of the developing material-related technologies.

In tribute to our annual new-technology issue, it seemed appropriate to review some of the technological happenings in our industry. This month’s cover depicts carbon nanotubes, and these are described further in this month’s Now You Know column. Nanotechnology obviously has an impact on some of the developing material-related technologies.

In fact, the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) named “advanced materials” such as nanotechnology and composites as one of their top 10 emerging aerospace technologies. Another on their list was “active structures,” which include shape-memory alloys. Number one on the same list was “greener aviation technologies.” This involves emission reductions, and green technologies of all kinds are definitely in the front line of current developments. Whether green motivated or not, saving energy and thus reducing emissions certainly helps you save the green.

A recent AP article suggested the “next big thing” in our economy might be “cleantech,” which was defined as alternative energy, more efficient power distribution and new ways to store electricity. An example of this is an effort that has enabled scientists to develop a new, less-expensive grade of raw material for solar cells. The good news is that the new modules are just as efficient as current solar cells.

One of the ways to assess developing technology is to identify who is investing in it. As the AP article points out, the world of cleantech is huge, and if government chooses to invest in a “promising” development project, they might make the wrong choice by investing in a technology that is not market viable. Something like this happened when the government threw all their eggs in the ethanol basket. That industry – looking for a market – is now working to get the percentage of ethanol increased in our gasoline, which might have a devastating impact on some existing automobiles and small engines.

DARPA is a good place to check out cutting-edge technologies. One of the things on their project list is nano-electro-mechanical computers (NEMS). This project has as its goal the development of “nanoscale mechanical switches and gain elements integrated intimately with complementary metal-oxide semiconductor switches.” Their objective for 2010 is to demonstrate NEMS devices and technologies for microcontroller building blocks that can operate at very high temperatures.

Several of DARPA’s projects are nanotechnology-based, which may say something about the next big thing. One of these is exploiting advances in nanoscale and biomolecular materials in order to “develop unique microstructures and material properties.” Materials whose properties have been engineered at the nanoscale level are called metamaterials. There are eight objectives listed for 2010 in this project area. Tip-based nanofabrication is another project with goals of fabricating a multi-tip array (five tips) for parallel manufacturing of nanoscale structures such as nanowires, nanotubes and quantum dots.

Energy-harvesting fabrics are a combination of energy-saving technologies and nanotechnologies. Georgia Tech researchers have made a flexible fiber coated with zinc oxide nanowires that can convert mechanical energy into electricity. Gold-plated zinc oxide nanowires are grown on a flexible polymer fiber, and these nanowires brush against untreated nanowires, which flex and generate current. Fabric made from the fibers could convert body movements into electric current.

University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed a composite nanomaterial that is stable at high temperatures. Typically, these small particles grow at high temperatures, which will limit the design effectiveness of nanomaterials. Researchers found that a platinum-rhodium alloy particle of 4nm size remained stable even during extended exposure at 1560°F. To give you a sense of who is funding this type of research, it was supported by the National Energy Technology Laboratory as well as the DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences and the National Science Foundation.

In our industry, I’d say nanotechnology holds the promise of being the next big technological development. It’s hard to imagine how many ways these advancements will improve our industry, from energy efficiency to instrumentation improvements. With future promise comes a measure of risk. While carbon nanotubes may help regrow nerve tissues and have many other positive medical uses, data has shown that exposure to certain nanomaterials may pose health risks to consumers or those working with nanomaterials. Specifically, titanium dioxide (TiO2) – found in many everyday products, such as cosmetics and vitamins – caused systemic genetic damage in mice. The report from UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center is the first to show that exposure to nanoparticles increases cancer risk.

Regardless of whether the new year ushers in technological developments that impact your business or not, we hope 2010 is a year full of business success and growth. IH