Nanotech tonic

Can nanotechnology bring a shape-shifting, solar-charged superphone to life?

You wouldn't expect a film about nanotechnology to have mass appeal, but Nokia's video of 'Morph', its latest mobile device concept, has received more than two million hits on the YouTube website since February of this year.

The animated film illustrates the Finnish handset maker's vision of how nanotechnology could transform today's mobile phone into a self-cleaning, wearable device that changes shape, detects environmental toxins, runs off small, longer-lasting batteries and uses solar energy to charge.

And with posted comments ranging from "Amazing, I want it now" to "Oh, my God" and "Holy ****", the world, or at least YouTube viewers, appear to be waiting.

But can nanotechnology deliver the goods? Despite having billions of dollars poured into research and development, the applications to date are still limited.

According to US analyst Lux Research, annual worldwide investment exceeded $12.4bn in 2006 alone, yet the latest UV-absorbing sunscreens, purifying water filters and windshield defoggers hardly live up to the 'new industrial revolution' promised several years ago.

Dr Tapani Ryhänen, head of multimedia devices research at Nokia, believes this is about to change. "There has been a lot of hype around nanotechnology but we believe it is now time for us to move into this area," he says. "We can see that quite a few [projects] have now reached a level of maturity that makes them worth investing in."

Indeed, Morph is the sum total of Nokia's investment interests. This mind-boggling concept springs from a collaboration between the company and the UK-based Cambridge Nanoscience Centre, University of Cambridge.

As Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology and university director of the Nokia-Cambridge collaboration explains, Nokia has been keen to establish a European base that can take the latest research developments and apply them to future products.

Their partnership was announced in March 2007 with an agreement to work together on long-term research projects. And while such a collaboration gives Nokia academic clout, it also provides nanotechnology research with some much-needed commercial focus.

"Nanotechnology has been around for a number of years and, while we've gone through a phase of exploring science, we are now having to exploit that," Welland says. "We are changing our focus and attitude, and are very serious about looking at applications."

Developing the Morph concept sets a commercial agenda for nanotechnology research at Cambridge, but where does the science stop and the fiction begin? Apparently, it doesn't. Each party is adamant that every aspect of Morph, from its smaller batteries to shape-shifting form, is achievable.

As Welland, puts it: "We have been very careful to ensure that every element of the concept of Morph can be realised and is not science fiction.

"Every concept that you see on YouTube is based on real laboratory demonstrations and is currently realisable."

Conceptually, the Morph handset is covered by so-called 'nanograss', which makes its entire surface sensitive to touch and movement. In practice, the nanograss would be an array of zinc oxide (ZnO) nanowires, currently under development at the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre.

ZnO itself exhibits unusual properties including a 'piezoelectric' response, which means the material generates an electric potential after applying a mechanical stress. By coating a substrate with these nanostructures, electrical signals can be activated by touching the surface. And because ZnO nanostructures are nearly transparent, this technique can be used to develop touch-sensitive, active matrix arrays that sit on top of displays.

Another key element of Morph is its ability to charge from solar energy and, again, ZnO nanostructures come in very handy here. Nokia and Cambridge researchers claim to have demonstrated a new method of making dye-sensitised solar cells based on the nanostructures that could provide a low-cost alternative to silicon-based solar cells.

Carbon nanotubes are stamped onto a flexible polymer substrate. This then serves as a 'scaffold' for growing ZnO nanoparticles, to which photosensitive dye molecules are anchored.

According to the research team, these novel solar cells could be engineered into flexible sheets, paving the way to a continuous roll-to-roll manufacturing process.

These examples are just a taste of the range of activities taking place at the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre and Nokia that could make Morph real. Take the notion of having a flexible device that can be folded and unfolded. This stems from an area of research dubbed 'stretchable electronics'.

Meanwhile, the self-cleaning aspect of Morph builds on existing work involving the fabrication of water-repellent novel nanostructures such as 'nanoflowers'.

And what about environmental sensing? Look no further than a new nanowire lithography process used to fabricate 3D architectures. Researchers say this technique holds great promise for the development of nanosensors, nanoelectronics components and electromechanical systems.

Clearly Morph is based on genuine, achievable concepts, but when can we expect to see a real product hitting the streets? Ryhänen predicts we will see some components of Morph in commercial handsets in about seven years.

"Based on my experience of developing technology, seven years is a good rule of thumb. From the moment you have a company working on a technology taken from academia and looking to scale production, this is a minimum timeframe. I hope there will be something before seven years."

And which parts of Morph will we see in our handsets first? Environmental sensing is probably one of your best bets. According to Welland, you could have a phone capable of 'bio-sensing' in the next couple of years. Ryhänen reckons nanostructured gas sensors will be available by 2010.

Both Welland and Ryhänen believe smaller, longer-lasting batteries that are easier to charge won't pose any problems. And with nano-coatings already available to render cars, boats and even kitchen tiles at least partially dirt-repellant, a self-cleaning phone could be with us soon.

However, the remaining elements will probably come later. As Welland points out: "If you want the 'full flexibility' of the Morph concept, that will take longer.

"Can we build it yet? No, we can't, but the concept of flexible electronics is definitely there. Likewise, are we ready to manufacture a phone with a [nanograss] coating stamped on it? No, but the technology is there and heading in the right direction."

Morph for the masses

But although the wealth of nanotechnology development is breathtaking, today's laboratory demonstrations of individual components are a far cry from the mass manufacture of entire devices.

Indeed, Nokia currently produces some 30 mobile phones a second; it's difficult to imagine the same production lines turning around Morph-like devices at a similar rate.

Ryhänen is well aware of the mammoth task of moving from manufacturing today's mobile phone to the Morphs of tomorrow. "The 30-hertz cycle in our production tells me we need future technology to be very mature to avoid taking manufacturing risks," he says.

However, he is still certain mass manufacturing will take place, with the application of novel manufacturing techniques such as printed electronics proving instrumental to scaling up the production of devices based on nanotechnologies.

Indeed, looking beyond the activities at Cambridge and Nokia, researchers around the world are developing fabrication techniques in preparation for the mass manufacture of nanotechnology-based devices.

Only in May of this year, researchers at US-based Harvard University and the German universities of Jena, Gottingen and Bremen claimed to have combined standard chip-making processes to develop a fabrication technique that could yield cheap, scalable, nanowire photonic and electronic integrated circuits.

The team now plans to merge their technique, they say, with other processes to "provide the necessary control to enable integrated nanowire photonic circuits in a standard manufacturing setting."

In July a research team at the University of California, Berkeley, claimed to have built a novel light-sensing array by growing a 'lawn' of two different types of nanowires onto a surface. Researchers claim the nanowires can be printed onto anything from silicon to paper and produce sensor arrays that are reliable, flexible and easy to scale up.

Ryhänen believes this is just the beginning. "We will see the birth of low-cost, large area electronics based on printing techniques and reel-to-reel manufacturing," he says.

"New manufacturing solutions such as this can also help us reduce costs and produce components and devices in a more efficient way, as well as allowing us to customise devices nearer to the point of sale."

Ryhänen also believes that the integration of more and more nanotechnology into mobile devices will radically change the way manufacturing currently takes place.

Paradigm shift

"Today we buy a material, and then another to form a functional device. A clear value chain exists from materials manufacturer to component manufacturer to device integrator," he explains.

"But with nanotechnology we will have new ways of integrating functionality into a device which makes this value chain more difficult to understand. For example, who owns what? What will be the role of different partners in the value chain?"

And while Ryhänen doesn't have clear answers to these questions, he does have clear expectations. "I believe nanotechnology will have a huge influence on future products. New manufacturing paradigms will help us bring nanotechnology into the devices of tomorrow," he asserts.

"Let's now avoid the hype, the real work is about to begin."

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