Crackpot technologies that could shake up IT

Eight more technologies that straddle the divide between harebrained and brilliant -- each with a promise to transform the future of the enterprise

It doesn't take a genius to catch on to the fact that in IT, innovation is a mandate. Push the envelope of what's possible, or find yourself relegated to wayside. But, to borrow a favored David St. Hubbins Spinal Tap aphorism, there's a fine line between clever and crackpot when it comes to making good on technological breakthroughs in the enterprise.

It is in that spirit that we revisit last year's level-headed look at crackpot technologies that could transform the enterprise, putting the screws to a new rack of could-be enterprise contenders. But before you write off nanotech or direct brain interfaces as the next big enterprise thing, consider this:

Of the dozen technologies we examined last year, several made significant enterprise-minded strides since we first assessed their IT prospects. Desktop Web apps, for one, lent credence to the conjecture that fat productivity suites might just have a shorter future than previously thought; solid-state drives popped up everywhere, from ultramobile laptops to the datacenter; and Sun's datacenter-in-a-box proved compelling enough for Google to move first to patent it. Even quantum cryptography received a vote of confidence, with Switzerland tapping the technology to protect parliamentary election transmissions.

Sure, some of this year's out-there technologies may prove fruit for future high-profile tech flops lists, but without forward-thinking, there would be no worthwhile enterprise advancement. So raise your eyebrows or your suspicions as you deem fit, and join us in assessing the potential each of the following technologies has to earn IT's respect or derision.

Nanotechnology

No technology has the potential to revolutionize enterprise computing like nanotechology -- at least that's the impression given by the breadth and intensity of experiments in going small these days. Practical or not, nearly every corner of the enterprise stockyard is being injected with nanotech -- displays, computers, even light bulbs. In fact, today I took nanotech to the slopes, skiing on Sterling skis with a "nano-carbon" base from World Cup technology.

But is there enough substance beneath the science to move nanotechnology beyond crackpot and into the enterprise? The answer, of course, depends on where you look.

Nanotech and quantum computing are closely related, but emerging nanotechnologies for storage, batteries, and even chip cooling are showing promise, at least in the labs.

In the US, Arizona State University's Center for Applied Nanoionics (CANi) has developed insight into nanostorage by examining two leading nanotech solutions simultaneously: tapping special materials and switching from a charge-based to a resistance-based framework.

Published in the October 2007 issue of IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices under the title "Bipolar and Unipolar Resistive Switching in Cu-doped SiO2," the concept uses materials already common to chip design (silicon dioxide and copper) but does so in a new way. By doping the silicon dioxide with the copper, the technology creates a leap in memory, according to Michael Kozicki, director of CANi.

"Because it is so low energy, we can pack a lot of memory and not drain battery power; and it's not volatile -- you can switch everything off and retain information," Kozicki says. "What makes this significant is that we are using materials that are already in use in the semiconductor industry to create a component that's never been thought of before."

As the insatiable appetite for computational power in ever-increasing types of devices increases, so will the need for low-power, abundant storage. Although not likely to emerge in commercial applications in the next year or two, nanostorage is a research area that shows significant promise.

Of course, powering these devices is another issue -- and another area where nanotechnology may come to the rescue.

In December, Stanford announced a breakthrough in lithium ion (Li-on) energy storage using silicon nanowires that will increase the potential storage of Li-on batteries nearly tenfold, according to Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and the leader of the research team.

Li-on battery capacities are limited by the lithium that can be held in the battery's anode. Typically, anodes are carbon, but silicon can be used for much higher capacity.Silicon has a drawback, however: It swells as it absorbs the lithium during charging and shrinks during discharge. This expand/contract cycle causes the silicon to break down over time, degrading the battery. Yi Cui and his team used silicon nanowires instead. The team found that although the nanowires expand four times their normal size during charging, they do not fracture while discharging.

This technology could emerge on the market relatively soon, especially if an established battery firm partners with the Stanford team.

With all this increased computing power comes an increase in heat, and a need to dissipate it. Researchers at Birck Nanotechnology Center have approached this problem in a new way, growing carbon nanotubes on top of microprocessor chips, allowing them to provide heat conduction away from the computational core. Described by the researchers as a "Velcro-like nanocarpet," the collection of tubes pulls heat away from the chip and into the heat sink for dissipation.

Performance, capacity, and efficiency have long been the markers of worthwhile ingenuity in the enterprise. And nanotech is aiming to deliver all three. Although these solutions are not imminent, their emergence is likely to change the face of the enterprise as they find practical means for integrating with emerging computing technologies.

-- Stephen Sven Hultquist

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