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Small technology with big promise

The year 2002 has seen several advances in technology for the business user. Methanol and hydrogen-based fuel cells, for example, promise to make the standard laptop and mobile battery, as well as recharging, redundant.

And new devices, such as personal digital assistant/mobile phone hybrids and improvements in communications technologies such as wi-fi (wireless broadband), augur much in the way of multifunctional mobile networking.

But, to really push the boundaries of computing, scientists have been spending the past few months exploring technological extremes – building the world’s most powerful supercomputer as well as robots the size of molecules.

In March 2002 a team of Japanese engineers fulfilled a five-year-old project to build the world’s fastest computer – the Earth Simulator. Previously the fastest machine was owned by the US military and was capable of 7.2 trillion calculations per second. Earth Simulator, at 35 trillion calculations per second is faster than the next 12 fastest supercomputers in the world combined.

Sporting a footprint the size of four tennis courts, Earth Simulator is designed to simultaneously keep tabs on the environmental effect of every weather system, polluting factory and rainforest. Its creators argue that the computer is able to accurately predict the global environment decades from now.

But is this type of macro-technology really revolutionary? The Earth Simulator is just an example of millions of dollars worth of boxes that are linked together in an interesting way to tackle a specific problem – the research proposition is new, the technology isn’t.

According to businesses such as IBM, Lucent Techno-logies and Hewlett Packard, who are pouring dollars into new technologies, the real revolution lies in nanotechnology. Like computers the size of houses, this is an idea that took hold in the 1950s. And in the past year or so practical applications of the science have been setting the technological world into frenzy.

If you want to split hairs (and it’s all about that sort of thing) nanotechnology encompasses motors, switches, robots, fibres, and a whole host of other molecular widgets that are no bigger than 100 nanometers (a billionth of a centimetre) in length.

In the 1980s nanotechnology gave us Buckminsterfullerene – a new configuration (allotrope) of carbon atoms where the molecules formed are football-shaped, rather than pyramidal as in diamond, or arranged in a layered, chicken-wire structure as in graphite. But while many medical uses were posited very little headway has been made in its application.

But in the past few months another carbon-based technology, nanotubes, started to appear, and have rapidly made their way into a range of technological devices. Nanotubes are formed by rolling a layer of carbon atoms in its graphite state to form a tube about 1.4 nanometers thick. The tubes are stronger than steel and highly conductive of electricity and heat so they can form super-thin wires for potential use in electronic circuits and computers the size of molecules.

Nanotubes are already present in most lithium-ion batteries because of the tubes’ conductivity and ability to aid recharging and lifetime of the battery. And Samsung, the Korean electronics manufacturer, is planning by the end of 2003 to sell television screens based on nanotube acting as electron-firing guns – a small scale-and high-quality alternative to the cathode ray tube.

And, in certain skewed formations, nanotubes electrical conduction properties change to those of a semi-conductor, meaning the current can be switched on and off. These switches are the basis of electronic circuitry and computing.

It will be many years before molecular switches and motors have any impact on day-to-day business computing, but in the biological field they are already making massive headway. Scientists at Cornell University, for example, have managed to attach an inorganic rotor to the energy-producing centre of organic cells. In future this means that an organism’s own energy source can be used to power nanoscopic robots that will fight viruses, clean arteries and prolong life.

The potential delay to nanotechnology’s wider rollout is the silicon chip industry which is still fuelled by super-computers like Earth Simulator.

But the National Science Foundation estimates the nanotech market will reach $1 trillion by 2015. Perhaps the biggest advances come in the smallest packages after all.

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