Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Nanotechnology has real applications

In looking at an emerging technology one usually finds a wealth of science fantasy swirling around a few scraps of reality. Nanotechnology is no exception. Magazines are full of articles about the promise of Nanotechnology and how it will change our lives in just a few short years. While this may be true, the application scenarios tend to run to the fantastic. One article talks about nanotech-level machines that can crawl through a person's blood vessels and repair damaged tissue. While this makes great copy for the science magazines, it does leave one wondering where are the real applications. In nanotechnology the real applications I have seen so far include semiconductor lithography and biomaterial developments. As optical techniques reach the limits of physics, the semiconductor industry seeks the next level of miniaturization through nanotechnology means. Real companies are using Nanotechnology in real applications here.
Biomaterials, while not as exciting as the nanotech robots mentioned earlier, is another real application. Materials developed on a nanotech-scale develop different and sometimes unique physical propertise compared to the same materials but on a larger scale. Optical, electrical, magnetic, and other properties change for the better at the nano-level. Steel can become stronger, coatings can become more scratch proof, and electrical conductivity can reach greater levels in other materials, to mention just a few.

Virtual Instrumentation is providing solutions in the Nanotechnology area -- again, in the real applications, not the science fantasy world. Atomic Force Microscopes typically use LabVIEW to read the results of cantilever passing over a material. Biomaterials are developed using LabVIEW, data acquisition, and vision tools. The Semiconductor Lithography machine must be calibrated and tested to maintain accuracy in its output. These are just a few examples.

If you are working in the Nanotech world, I would like to hear from you about your real application.

Hall T. Martin

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Wireless Networks for Measurement Applications

Recently, National Instruments held its annual user conference called NI Week. In this conference, new technologies related to wireless networking were demonstrated. Using Bluetooth and Wireless Lan technologies encapsulated in a series of "nodes", the demonstrator was able to bring measurements wirelessly from those nodes spread around the room. The elimination of wires enables many applications including automotive, aircraft, heating/air conditioning, machine condition monitoring, and more. The "nodes"on display were stackable, in that the user could choose from a variety of modules and then stack them like lego blocks to achieve the right mix of analog and digital channels.

From the attendees in the room, the main problems to be solved involved interference, security, cost of the network (when using cellular or satellite techniques) and the ubiquitous battery-life issue. Customer's requirements for powering the devices in the field ranged from 2 hour life spans up to 3 years. Ruggedization requirements also ranged from Not Required to Mil Std. and 5Gs.

It's clear that wireless networking has a wide range of uses and applications. The tools are starting to emerge to solve these applications cost-effectively. If you are working in this area, I would like to share insights gleaned from this technology demonstration event.

As always, if you know of an emerging technology, I am interested in hearing from you.

Hall T. Martin