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There are increasing signs that big players in the mobile phone market are calling on nanotechnology to give them an edge.

Nokia and Motorola, for example, have invested in their own in-house research groups to build up expertise in nanotech, and they’re also keeping an eye out for developments by startups and academic researchers.

But these companies, wealthy as they are, can’t afford to chase every pie-in-the-sky scheme. Bob Iannucci, Head of Nokia Research Center, recently described a few of the novel technologies that have a realistic chance of making it into your coat pocket.

“I’m a highly enthusiastic skeptic,” said Iannucci last month at the Lux Executive Summit in Cambridge, MA. Advances in technology, he pointed out, are driven by “a worldwide race to make phones smaller, thinner, and with higher functionality.” Building 200 million phones a year, as Nokia does, requires an expensive infrastructure that they would rather not overhaul. Consequently, new technologies have to hurdle “a high bar.” In the short term, though, Iannucci said, new coatings and materials engineered at the nanoscale should make thin phones stronger and more wear-resistant – and even self-cleaning.

In a few years, say five to seven, more significant nano-led changes might occur. Right now, for instance, cell phone cases are largely there to protect the working insides – and maybe add a dash of style. In the future, many internal components may be replaced by electronics built into the case itself. “One of the most interesting things for us in the mid-term is printable electronics,” said Iannucci. The circuit board could be replaced with “inks” made electrically conductive by nano-sized metal particles. Eventually, too, cheap antennas and radios fashioned out of nano materials, including carbon nanotubes, could allow phones to work across all sorts of cell networks and in wireless Internet hotspots.

Those components that remain inside will become modular – easily switched out in the manufacturing process. The printed circuitry could be designed to allow for multiple configurations, which would enable “mass-customization,” said Iannucci. Now a million phones is considered “a small run” for Nokia; but some significant opportunities exist for making “thousands or even hundreds of specialized devices.” Some customers may need a high-quality camera module included, for example. Others may prefer to use the space for more memory.

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