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Nanotechnology: The Future of Mobile Phones?

May 14, 2012
By Nigel Chew


14 May 2012 - The mobile phone industry revolves around the concept where only the strongest and most visible products survive. However, it seems as though the technology powering these devices have stagnated, where new ones are released into the market without much improvements over its predecessors.

The Nokia Communicator 808

Nanotechnology has been around for just about as long as smartphones first made their debut, one of it being Nokia’s Communicator 888, with its flexible, morphing shape which highlighted what nanotechnology was capable of. Yet virtually none of these breakthroughs have ever been implemented in a commercial device. With rapid progress in the research of nanotechnology, will we ever be able to see it revolutionise the mobile phone industry?

One of the biggest concerns about smartphones today has always been how battery technology is lagging behind everything else. While devices get faster and more powerful, there just seems to be no feasible way for it to last for extended periods of time. Engineers at the University of Illinois have developed a form of ultra low-power digital memory that is faster and uses 100 times less energy than similar available memory. In other words, Androids, iPhones and tablets could theoretically last for months without needing a charge.

A researcher holding carbon nanotube samples

Presently available flash memory used in mobile devices stores bits as charge, which requires high programming voltages and is relatively slow. The industry has been looking into faster and high powered phase-change materials (PCM) as an alternative. Instead of using industry standard metal wires, these researchers are using carbon nanotubes which are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Not only does the nanotube PCM memory allow a smartphone to operate for a longer time on a smaller battery, it is also capable running of its own thermal, mechanical or solar energy with no energy source necessary.

It is that very idea that is being developed by researchers in the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University. Called Power Felt, the carbon nanotubes form a thermoelectric device that converts body heat into an electrical current, which is able to generate enough electricity to power up a call.

Researchers at IBM are currently employing nanotechnology to build a future generation of wireless transceivers that are much more sensitive than the ones found in phones today. They have built prototype transistors with a new material, called grapheme - that consists of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. Its structure allows electrons to travel through it very fast, allowing greater efficiency than currently available transceiver chip materials.

Bell Labs, an organisation specialising in nanotechnology is currently designing components known as micro-microphones for mobile telephones that sport more than one microphone for sound reception. According to one research, having multiple microphones would allow a person to be maximally sensitive to the sounds they want and minimally sensitive to the sounds they do not. In turn this will help cut down the noise a person hears over the phone.

The above is the tip of the iceberg of what nanotechnology is capable of, when incorporated into mobile phones. Sure, it may not be fancy pseudo science fiction devices that Nokia attempted in the beginning, but unless issues such as battery capacity and energy consumption are addressed first, pushing the envelope in other aspects will become redundant. 


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