Nano Nokia

Nanoscale coatings and materials could make cell phones sturdier, more wear-resistant – and much smarter.

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.

The modifications need not end there, according to Tapani Ryhanen, head of Multimedia Devices Research at Nokia. Whereas today customers snap on decorative cases, in the future such cases may come with songs built in. Or they may have specialized RFID (radio frequency ID) tags that can be used to pay for lift tickets and mochas at a favorite ski resort.

As mobile devices continue to shrink, and as more complex circuitry can be printed on flexible materials, Ryhanen says we can “start talking about building future mobile devices that are much more wearable, something you can wear around your wrist or embed in your clothing.”

Before we reach that point, however, two looming challenges are emerging as more and more features are added to mobile devices. First, more memory is needed to store songs, pictures, and eventually high-definition video when the devices become high-quality camcorders as well. Ryhanen says Nokia is keeping a close eye on developments in high-capacity storage, “an area where we believe there will be some very disruptive technologies emerging.” Ryhanen points to work using carbon nanotubes and micromechanics to make ultra-dense storage devices.

Perhaps as great a challenge as memory storage is finding a way to power complex devices. Nokia’s major competitor, Motorola, has announced work on using carbon nanotubes to create super-efficient micro-fuel cells. Toshiba, according to Iannucci, “has developed very interesting lithium-ion cells that can be recharged in about a minute.” He said Nokia is very close to being able to put these into products.

But better batteries may not be the best long-term solution. “Putting more energy into a battery, and then having that fail in some fundamental way can be colossal. We’ve all read about products that have caught fire,” Iannucci said. In the future, new technologies will “distribute and segregate the energy” in the “equivalent of having lots of little batteries.”

In spite of his skepticism, then, Iannucci has concluded “nanomaterials offers some very intriguing possibilities, both in the short and the long term.”

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