Scientists at North Carolina State University have created a nanomaterial that may have wide ranging applications that could increase computer chip storage and improve gas mileage and solar cells. This technology is so tiny it would get lost on the head of pin.
Dr. Jagdish “Jay” Narayan, John C.C. Fan Family Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the National Science Foundation Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures at NC State, led a team of scientists in the development of this new nanomaterial. The scientists used a process known as “selective doping, in which an impurity is added to a material that changes its properties.” In this case, metal nickel was added to magnesium oxide.
The result was a “material [that] contained clusters of nickel atoms no bigger than 10 square nanometers, a 90 percent size reduction compared to today’s techniques and an advancement that could boost computer storage capacity.” To put that into perspective, a pinhead has a diameter of 1 million nanometers, so we’re talking tiny. Being able to create a material this small means that computer chips that hold one terabyte could fit in a space no larger than your fingernail like the Timex TX54 conceptual watch seen above.
Being able to create a metal/ceramic material at the nano level could produce ceramic engines that are “able to withstand twice the temperatures of normal engines and achieve fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon.” The same technology could also improve the harvesting of renewable energy like solar.
The successful combining of nickel and ceramics at the nano level also forwards the science of “spintronics”. Spintronics is a relatively young field of science that looks to harvest energy from spinning electrons. Right now energy in the form of current is limited by the amount of heat that it produces. The heat is basically wasted energy unless the heat byproduct of a process can be used as a method to fuel other processes or can otherwise be recaptured.
Spinning electrons don’t produce any heat so all of the energy gained from this source is utilized. The researchers were able to control the spin of electrons within their nanomaterial. Achieving control of electron spin may lead to a good method of harnessing the energy in the electrons. This in turn could lead to improved semiconductors.
Although NC State scientists have developed an excellent nanomaterial and technique for creating useful nanomaterials, any marketable gains from this new technology are years away. Those tiny storage computer chips, better ceramic engines and improved semiconductors aren’t going to be available next month much less next year.