Sandcastles and Nanotechnology

You may have heard that nano-tech is the future and that it’s going to revolutionize everything.

I’d like to illustrate why this is such a big deal for technology, much like the transistor was its own revolution, this is another quantum leap in how we do things. With transistors, you’ll recall, we were able to go small, enabling a wrist watch today to have more computing power than what put a man on the moon. Nano-tech is that same exponential leap.

Every computerized device, such as a smart phone, TV, server, etc., depends on semiconductors. These chips are the intelligence behind our modern lives. And how those chips are manufactured is currently the old school way, which is from a top down approach.

Imagine spreading sand out on a platter and then etching away at it to make tiny sandcastles. That’s a top down approach. Instead of shovels and trowels however, with microchips, that etching away is done on a microscopic level with mirrors and lasers.

This all has to be done in a manufacturing plant, with many 1000’s of chips being produced in order to reach scale. This large scale is necessary to be cheap and profitable for many reasons, one being that after etching away, many don’t survive the process and these large numbers of chips are just thrown out. That’s a huge waste! Another reason chips have to be manufactured at scale, is because the tooling required to manufacture each type of chip is expensive. Therefore, many of those chips have to be produced and sold in order to make up for just the expense in tooling.

By contrast, nanotechnology, which we’re making great progress learning how to do, lets us build something from the bottom up. Using molecules like Lego blocks, or to use the sandcastle analogy, to build a tiny sandcastle one grain of sand at a time.

So there are many immediate benefits. Reducing waste, and getting smaller components are the obvious ones. By extension, these two things lead to many other downstream benefits.

By reducing waste, for example, we make products more consistent. Each tiny sandcastle is identical. There is less, if any, waste. Better consistency means higher quality consumer devices. And further, products are cheaper because if a manufacturer doesn’t have to throw away 10–20% of their production, they save money. Since chip manufacturing is highly competitive, this means that savings will get passed on to the consumer.

By getting smaller, some of the downstream benefits are faster devices and more efficient devices (less battery drain). And typically we’ve seen consumer demand trend towards devices that are smaller, as long as those smaller devices can do at least as much as their larger counterparts.

One additional benefit which is not immediately apparent and may take longer to realize, as techniques and tooling improves, we may no longer have to produce at scale. That is, each tiny sandcastle produced, can be completely different. Just as 3D printing physical materials is reducing the need to produce at scale, so will generic nano-tech building machines. You may not have one in your house anytime soon, but a generic machine for nano-tech that can make one chip and then build another completely different chip is revolutionary.

So to sum up, what does all this mean to the average consumer and electronic devices? Smaller devices can be thinner, lighter, or pack more punch at the same size. Devices that are better, faster and cheaper are always welcome; as is a longer battery life. But these are all incremental and with nano-tech I thought we were talking about something revolutionary? True.

So what else can be done? With any technological advance like this it’s hard to predict ‘what’ will come out of it because it’s a new tool that can be used to create. I say if you want to dream about it, turn to the next Hollywood movie you see about the future. All those things that seem impossible, might be accomplished with nanotechnology.

This article outlines the benefits of nano-tech in one specific field, semiconductors. It seems as if this will be one of the first fields that will see immediate benefits, but nanotechnology will have a drastic impact on many other industries. I can’t say exactly when you’ll see a dramatic shift in your life for consumer devices. But I know that it’s coming. And at risk of sounding cheesy, these small things are going to have a big impact.

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