Nano knows best

In 1965, Intel's co-founder Gordon E Moore described a trend that would become known as Moore's law: that the number of transistors you can squeeze on to a computer chip would continue to double roughly every two years. His prediction has proved uncannily accurate, and has been one of the reasons that electronic devices, from computers to digital cameras and phones, have been able to get faster as they have grown smaller.

Comparing the Osborne Executive portable computer from 1982 with an Apple iPhone, for instance, you find that the Osborne is 100 times heavier,
500 times bigger and ten times more expensive. Yet it has one-hundredth the processing power of Apple's gizmo. So, will Moore's law ever run out of headroom? In recent years, researchers have been pushing the boundaries further, using a new discipline called nanotechnology. This means controlling matter on an atomic or molecular scale, generally things which measure less than 100 nanometres - that's one-billionth of a metre. If that doesn't put it in perspective, a sheet of paper is a lardy 100,000 nanometres thick.

For instance, Xerox Research, using nano techniques, recently developed a silver ink that can be printed using an inkjet printer to form circuits that are far more flexible than conventional silicon chips. Meanwhile, IBM has been working with King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology on a "nanomembrane" that can filter out salts as well as harmful toxins to purify water.

These are just two examples of the potential nanotechnology holds: researchers are looking at how it could transform medicines, light bulbs, solar cells and even the internal combustion engine. Some "nano-foods" are already available - a cooking oil, a tea, and a milkshake called Nanoceuticals Slim Shake Chocolate. The shake, according to its US manufacturer, RBC Life Sciences, uses cocoa-infused "NanoClusters" to enhance the taste and health benefits of cocoa without the need for extra sugar. Heston Blumenthal, take note.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next