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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Bourne Research > A Lot of What's Being Labeled "Nanotech" Technically Isn't


Just what is nanotechnology, anyway? A new book, A Consumer's Guide to MEMS & Nanotechnology, puts it all into perspective. Here's a sneak peek.

August 20th, 2007

A Lot of What's Being Labeled "Nanotech" Technically Isn't

Shortly after I started The Bourne Report Podcast (and I can't believe it's been almost a year now), I introduced the listener's challenge, where I asked listeners to email me ideas of things from everyday life and challenge me to find the MEMS or nanotech connection. This time it's my turn to come up with an idea. But, rather than creating a podcast episode, I've written a book, A Consumer's Guide to MEMS and Nanotechnology - I think you could consider it the ultimate listener's challenge.

What I do is take a look at all sorts of things from everyday life, and discuss how MEMS and nanotechnology are being used to make them more unique. Some things I've mentioned in this podcast; many I haven't. As I'm sure you now recognize, MEMS and nanotechnology are complex topics; and, whether we realize it or not, already affect pretty much every part of our daily lives - despite the fact that the press focuses mostly on the "what if" and "imagine this" angles. What the book does is focus on the here and now; how these technologies are being put to use in all kinds of products today - and why.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part takes a look at what MEMS and nanotechnology are and their commercial history: how they started to make their way into the market, the ups and downs in terms of hype and venture capital funding, and how the two technologies - one being material science (nanotech) and the other engineering (MEMS) - somehow became intertwined. There are a number of MEMS devices on the market that are actually mislabeled nanotechnology. As you'll learn, others things are being mislabeled as well. And in some instances, the difference does matter.

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Part I primarily focuses on dozens of MEMS devices and nanomaterials including: accelerometers, gyro sensors, pressure sensors, nozzles, pumps, lab-on-a-chip, carbon nanotubes, dendrimers, fullerenes (buckyballs), nanoclays, nanocomposites, nanoparticles, nanosilver, and more. I discuss their history, how they work, what makes them unique, why they've useful, and of course, who's manufacturing all of these things.

In Part II of the book, I take a look at real-life applications of MEMS and nanotechnology today. This second half is actually a really good reference guide to the current state of MEMS and nanotechnology commercialization. It is by no means exhaustive - I provide as many examples as I can, but I don't just list things - there are explanations to go along with these examples. As you'll discover, in the overall scheme of things, while the breadth of use is quite extensive, the depth of use isn't there right now. That is, typically only a few models in any given product category currently benefit from these technologies.

That being said, each chapter provides some history of how the use of these devices and materials has changed certain markets and applications. Other uses are simply novel and some are just plain fascinating. The bottom line is that we're looking at applications that are far more innovative, and diverse, than many might think.

Here's a quick run-down of these chapters.

The use of a variety of MEMS sensors in automotive applications is fairly well known, and extensive, but the use of nanomaterials isn't. As it turns out, most cars now benefit from carbon nanotubes as part of the fuel line—which makes it safer. And both MEMS and nanotechnology are playing an active role in tires. Other applications include batteries, cleaning and waxing products, seat fabrics and even windshields.

The concept of "smart homes" still seems to be fairly futuristic, yet the future is closer than you might think. I'm sure most homeowners would be thrilled to have self-cleaning windows (I know I would), especially if they also reduced your energy bills. Or how about cleaning products that reduce build-up in the shower and bath? From building materials to flooring, lighting and even patio furniture, there's no question that smart homes are indeed a reality - you just don't need to be connected to the internet to make a home smart.

Both MEMS and nanotechnology are making a play in consumer electronics - from cell phones and home theater, to gaming systems and toys. In fact, stuffed animals are now available that leverage silver nanoparticles to keep them germ-free. Speaking of silver nanoparticles, as you'll discover in the book, the majority of "nanosilver" products on the market today, are actually NOT nanotechnology.

In fact, as I mentioned, a number of things being labeled "nanotech," technically aren't, because the particle sizes don't fit within the specified threshold of 1 to 100 nanometers. I discovered this mislabeling is most prevalent with cosmetics. The cosmetic chapter is one that I found especially interesting, for this very reason. There's a lot of terminology being used for marketing purposes, and I really dug deep - taking a look at patents and product technical sheets - to assess what is and what isn't nano here. Other personal care areas where both MEMS and nanotech are in use include deodorant, hair care and even toothpaste.

I think it's safe to say that clothing and textiles are being perhaps the most transformed by nanotechnology. Stain-free properties are fairly obvious, but how about anti-pollen and anti-sand? I love the concept of swimsuits that prevent sand from sticking to them, although I'd love anti-sand beach towels even better, so hopefully that's something that's on the horizon. Interestingly, both MEMS and nanotechnology are also playing an active role in jewelry.

Sporting goods is another area where the use of nanomaterials is fairly widely known, but there are some applications that might surprise you. Like, fishing poles made from carrots - I kid you not! Or how about the use of MEMS sensors to prevent motion sickness while boating? Both technologies are also finding their way into protective gear - ranging from football helmets to unique fabrics for those who ride motorcycles.

In terms of healthcare and medicine, while most of the really cool things I know of are still being developed, there are numerous examples of MEMS and nanotechnology in use today. From asthma inhalers and first aid, to hearing aids, wheelchairs and even chips that doctors use which can detect in less than 15 minutes whether you're having a heart attack.

I round out the book with a chapter on applications that are less consumer-oriented and more industrial in nature. That is, things that the consumer doesn't necessarily buy, but does affect them indirectly. Here's where I talk about the use of MEMS and nanotechnology as it pertains to food production, oil & gas exploration, the manufacture of paper, water quality and even applications of MEMS and nanotech in space.

So, there it is. A Consumer's Guide to MEMS & Nanotechnology. We're all consumers. My aim here was to provide a single resource, a guide of sorts, as to what MEMS and nanotechnology are really all about, how they've being put to use today - and why. Hence, my reference to it, in conjunction with this podcast, as the ultimate listener's challenge; except in this case, rather than listening to it, you really need to read it.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #58.

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© 2007 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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