Friday, September 01, 2006

Nanotubes And The Inkjet Printer

My abiding love for carbon nanotubes only deepens with time. Every new advance impresses me more with the unlimited capacity that these tiny building blocks seem to have to turn our world into a science fiction adventure. I would like to live in a science fiction adventure--one of the nice ones, like Star Trek TNG, or Stargate SG 1, but without the built-in bad guys. My life has enough problems without adding in Romulans, Borg, or evil alien symbiotes. Cloaking devices, food replicators, and transporters, on the other hand, could be awfully useful. Anyway, I've got another nanotech breakthrough to report, so let's get to it.

One question I'm sure we've all got nagging at us regularly is, "What would take nanotech one step closer to ubiquity?" Answer: An easier method of fabricating nanotech devices, of course! Science Daily has a report from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which says that a group of scientists at Rensselaer (with campuses in Troy N.Y., as well as Hartford, Conn.), along with other researchers working in Finland, have come up with a new way to make nanotube electronic devices. How, you ask? (I'm so glad you did ask, otherwise this post would have to be a lot shorter. Very anticlimactic.) They suspended carbon nanotubes in a water solution, filled an ink cartridge with them, plugged it into a commercial inkjet printer, and viola--instant nano printing press. The nanotubes are printed on the paper, just like ink, except they are such excellent electrical conductors, that the result is basically printed nanocircuits.

So, what does this mean in real life terms? The article at Science Daily quotes "...Robert Vajtai, a researcher with the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute":

"Printed carbon nanotube structures could be useful in many ways," Vajtai said. "Some potential applications based on their electrical conductivity include flexible electronics for displays, antennas, and batteries that can be integrated into paper or cloth." Printing electronics on cloth could allow people to actually "wear" the battery for their laptop computer or the entire electronic system for their cell phone, according to Vajtai.

That sci fi enough for you? But wait, there's more. How would you like a newspaper that you keep from day to day? Now, you're not going to keep it because you really like that article from May of 2002, but because every day the words change, thanks to the conductive nano-ink. Same paper, new articles. (Don't ask me how it works; it's all part of the nanotech miracle.) Cool, huh? Of course, they better come out with something a little sturdier than standard newsprint, don't you think? (It also wouldn't hurt if they could get the journalism part a little more up to snuff, if you ask me.) Needless to say, we would all miss the other functions that newspapers serve. Birdcages will still need lining. Fish will still need wrapping, and moving might never be as easy again without something on hand that's convenient for wrapping breakables. However, I'm sure the moving part will stop being a problem once they invent that transporter. We'll eliminate the need to wrap things at all. We'll just beam them to their new location.

There are myriad advantages to this inkjet method of producing conductive surfaces:

The approach is simple, versatile, and inexpensive, which makes it superior to other methods for producing conductive surfaces, according to Vajtai. "A great advantage of our process is that the printed patterns do not require curing, which is known to be a limiting factor for conventional conductive ink applications," he said. "And since our ink is a simple water-based dispersion of nanotubes, it is environmentally friendly and easy to handle and store."

According to the article, while it's already cheap, this method will be getting cheaper as carbon nanotubes become more widely used, and thus more widely manufactured. As the article states, this nano-ink is environmentally friendly, which is always a plus with electronics, and not easy to come by, as our recent forays into Greenpeace rankings for electronics manufacturers demonstrated. Another thing that should keep the cost down is that most of the components used in printing with the nano-ink are standard off-the-shelf items: printer, cartridges, and even the paper and plastic used as the printing surface. The only specialty item are the water-soluble nanotubes. The scientists at Rensselaer made their own, but it looks like future entrepreneurs will be able to skip this step. You know how it works in free markets. Where there's a demand, there's usually a supply.

So, if you're going to be wearing your cell phone, or laptop battery as a piece of clothing, you'll want to have multiple fashion options, right? Not everyone looks good in basic black. Well, right now the fashion-friendly scientists at Rensselaer are working on chemical modifications so that their nano-ink can come in a variety of colors. Isn't that thoughtful of them? Colored nano-ink could have so many uses. Pretty soon, I'm sure I'll be writing in the Meow about some new trend in nano-art--a field not yet invented to my knowledge, but sure to be coming to a future near you. It will produce wonders of incredible usefulness and functionality, combined with a rare beauty, all because scientists found a way to make nano-ink in lots of pretty colors. What that nano-art will be I can't even imagine right now. I can't, but you can bet someone else will.

The whole flexible electronics idea makes me wonder if someday we'll be able to roll up the TV, and the laptop, and tuck them in our luggage when we're heading out on vacation, say to a remote cabin in the mountains. We won't have to worry about a power supply way out in the wilderness. We'll be wearing it.

Hat tip: Futurismic