Nanotechnology - small wonder it's coming

OK – end of play, following a morning at the IBM Zurich labs and an afternoon at ETH Zurich, one of Switzerland's leading universities. It counted Einstein, Roentgen and Pauli among its physicists, and regularly adds Nobels to its trophy cabinet.

OK – end of play, following a morning at the IBM Zurich labs and an afternoon at ETH Zurich, one of Switzerland's leading universities. It counted Einstein, Roentgen and Pauli among its physicists, and regularly adds Nobels to its trophy cabinet. It's that sort of place.

I've seen some great things which will need a bit of beard stroking and research to properly regurgitate, but here are some immediate thoughts.

Nanotech is coming – and it's going away. It's coming because it solves real problems and makes good use of all the expensive lessons we've learned refining semiconductor physics and production, and it's going away as a concept because it's going to be part of everything. There is nowhere else for chips to go: the introduction of the 80386 is further behind us than we are away from all the roadblocks at the end of classical semiconductor development. And nanotech is going to become a huge part of the future of chemistry, biology and physics: nothing else gives us the power to work at the scale that really matters to us – every system that makes us up can be considered as nanotech, and wherever you look in energy, environment, food and materials science, developments at the most intimate level have the biggest potential impact.

Before that happens, here's where it'll turn up first. Medicine and health. You name it – molecular analysis of samples, micro-surgery, drug production, monitoring implants, all are huge markets waiting for the increase in efficiencies, better procedures and plain old cost savings that'll happen when we better engineer tiny things that interact with our bodies. For example: tiny robots small enough to fit in a particular size of syringe that can be powered, controlled and monitored from outside, and which do real surgery on retinas. Why that size of syringe? That's the largest that can inject into the eye without requiring sutures.

As for other aspects: when you've seen nano-sized helices busy propelling themselves through a liquid like so many bacteria, heard researchers talking about the practical challenges of energy harvesting (you can't store power in things that small, so they have to take it from their environment), and seen 500 nm polystyrene beads precisely positioned on the surface of 100 micrometer glass balls that have themselves been precisely positioned, you don't doubt that the basic toolset of nanotechnology is advancing as quickly as people can think the ideas up.

IT – well, it'll be slower arriving than you'd like but probably as quick as it needs to be. Spintronics, where you make things happen by the way electrons behave rather than by moving them around, remains tremendously exciting and still largely unknown. We have it already in hard disks; it's moving into solid state memory (where yields are still a huge problem, but that's being tackled) but is still an unknown period away from making useful logic. There are plenty of questions of basic physics to solve before that happens – fortunately, they include plenty of discoveries that are exciting but badly understood.

Making exotic 3D transistors that work faster, smaller and with much lower power is going to happen first: in fact, it's already happening. (Making circuits out of them that aren't severely compromised by cosmic rays is, however, still an interesting problem). Likewise, clever optical interconnects are high on the agenda. These are two basic new technologies that will be around when the old ideas we've relied on are out of steam.

Tomorrow is a big announcement; we've been told what it'll be but sworn to secrecy until it happens. It's not a breakthrough or a big discovery, but it is important and will be another pointer towards what happens next.

See you then. Keep it tiny.

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