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Disruptive by Design: Nano Now

Many believe the development of nanotechnologies will forever change our world. Rather than taking what the planet provides, we can make what we want, beginning at the smallest scales.

By Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA

What’s smaller than small? Nano. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter. At a scale smaller than a grain of salt, a blood cell or a virus, resides the nanoverse. Nanoparticles range from one to 100 nanometers. For perspective, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Many believe the development of nanotechnologies will forever change our world. Rather than taking what the planet provides, we can make what we want, beginning at the smallest scales. From microprocessors to minuscule organ-on-a-chip devices, the forefront of creation begins with some of the tiniest objects. With nano, a new era in capabilities is moving from the horizon to the now.

Engineers are finding practical applications of manufactured nanoparticles in a variety of areas. Nanoparticles can be designed into products that enable microscopic actions, such as filtering bacteria and viruses from water. Nanofibers afford new material designs, including resistance to staining, fire and water. Likewise, engineers have already designed nanocomposite materials that are lighter, stronger and more chemically resistant than traditional materials. Many of these materials are designed to absorb various forms of radio frequency (RF) energy to include light. With energy harvested from the environment, these materials can be applied in self-sustaining systems.

For military communicators, nanomaterials may have a big impact on three technologies near and dear to our hearts. For transistors and microprocessors, for example, the future of Moore’s Law and the rise of quantum computers depend on engineering feats at the nanoscale. Additionally, due to their increased internal surface areas, nanocomposite materials can store an electrical charge, which makes them ideal for new forms of batteries and supercapacitors. Lastly, the ability of new materials to increase the transmission and absorption of RF signals also enables new classes of antennas.

Some of the more intriguing uses of nanotechnologies involve the replication of macroscale capabilities at a nanoscale. Compact nodes operated autonomously through nanoscale computational means and embedded with sensing, processing and communication capabilities allows for novel applications.

Ubiquitous applications of nanotechnologies becomes more credible as power requirements of nanoscale sensors and processors decrease, and the ability of these devices to sponge energy from the environment increases. Evidence suggests the rise of nanotechnology, from devices to track consumer goods, to commercial applications for environmental intelligence and data collection.

In the medical arena, several developers are delivering lab-on-a-chip technologies. In experiments, these devices interact with biological systems to measure organic states and deliver sophisticated precision-based treatments. The agriculture industry is also considering the application of these devices to better track the state of crops.

As these devices, some of which are called “smart dust,” become more capable, new applications will likely arise. Smart dust devices with built-in sensors can autonomously assemble as a group, orient themselves and report on their environment. It is not difficult to imagine both offensive and defensive military applications. These devices may be used to degrade adversary communications or provide RF camouflage or digital chaff. They also may be at the forefront of low-detection mesh communication networks.

The drive toward increasingly capable, low-cost nanotechnologies will follow a trajectory similar to many macroscale products. The challenges associated with the Internet of Things will only increase. Demands for bandwidth, self-healing connectivity and security will force communicators to develop solutions. Likewise, the omnipresent collection of data will increase privacy concerns. However daunting these problems, hope abounds due to the rise of nanotechnologies. As a result, leaders today must consider the future impacts of nano because this incredible technology is no longer a far-off possibility. It is in our world now.

Maj. Ryan Kenny, USA, created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do
not represent the views and opinions of the U.S. Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.