Hong Kong researchers think small

Nanotechnology researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) are creating some microscopic, ultra-thin, super-narrow and otherwise shrimpy things that may have big implications for information technology.

Among the diminutive discoveries coming out of the physics department alone at HKUST are tubes just a few molecules wide, a microwave-absorbing sheet thinner than paper and a clutch that can stop and start a micro-motor without the need for tiny gears. These breakthroughs could make flat-panel displays cheaper, cell phones safer and microdrives more reliable, the researchers said in an interview Friday.

Nanotechnology is the study of devices that measure less than a nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. For the sake of comparison, a typical human hair is 30,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology has been touted most often as the key to coming breakthroughs in medicine and robotics. However, the HKUST researchers envision some of their work being commercialized in IT hardware.

In May, the ten-year-old university will launch a US$1 million Institute of Nanoscience and Technology, drawing on faculty from electrical engineering and chemistry departments in addition to the physics team. Nanotechnology experts from top U.S. universities including Princeton, Stanford and UC Berkeley will act as advisors. The focus, however, will remain on pure research.

Over the past year, Assistant Professor Weija Wen has created a white powder of tiny particles that, when combined with oil, can be either a fluid or a solid. It changes its state when an electrical charge is applied or removed, a property known as electrorheology. Wen's is not the first substance that can do this, but the molecular properties of Wen's particles make this fluid much more rigid than those that have gone before, he said. For instance, it exceeds the rigidity standard set by General Motors Corp. for use in a clutch, which the auto maker has been researching for more than ten years.

In a car, such a clutch might last longer than a mechanical one, Wen said. In a small hard-disk drive, such as for a handheld device, it could remove the need to make tiny, expensive gears and clutches. If used to replace existing parts, the technology could be commercialized in just two or three years, he estimated.

"As long as IT can't be totally separated from moving parts, you'll need something to transmit force and torque on a micro scale," Wen said.

Also in the HKUST lab, tiny tubes called "nanotubes" created by Zi-Kang Tang, a lecturer in the physics department, represent a step beyond those typically grown in labs today. In the past few years, Tang has discovered a way to use zeolite crystals as a template for the tubes of graphite, making them smaller, thinner and absolutely uniform, he said. Tang's nanotubes are less than a nanometer in diameter.

One thing nanotubes are useful for is transmitting electrons efficiently and at high speeds. That's what the cathode-ray tubes in TVs and traditional computer monitors do, except that the electrons in those tubes need a lot of room to travel so they can be amplified. Using nanotubes, a monitor manufacturer could make a CRT almost as thin as an active-matrix LCD (liquid-crystal display), but at a much lower cost and lower power requirement, Tang said.

LCD makers already are developing such CRTs, but using existing, imperfect nanotubes that tend to lose their brightness in a matter of hours. More perfect nanotubes might be the solution, Tang said.

"If they can overcome the lifetime problem, you might see it (in products) next year," Tang said.

Another project under way at HKUST is heading toward something that might appear small and simple but which will solve a potentially big problem. Wen and Department of Physics Head Ping Sheng recently created -- accidentally, Wen says -- a flexible material thinner than paper that can absorb 95 percent of the microwaves that hit it.

Wen envisions a small shield on a cell phone that users could flip up next to the phone's antenna, to shield their heads from radiation. This could make moot the raging debate over the effects of cell-phone radiation on the brain, he said.

Whatever the true effects of microwaves, "There's no denying that not having as much exposure is a safer option," Wen said.

HKUST's physics department has developed a strength in nanotechnology over the past several years because it has always focused on the field of condensed metal physics, rather than cosmology or some other aspect of physics, Wen said. Researchers also cooperate with nanotechnology experts in China, where the subject is being studied at some major universities, but only through the same academic activities in which they share findings with academics elsewhere in the world.

It will most likely be up to private companies to do the research and development that might turn these discoveries into practical devices. Lab funds are relatively scarce and dedicated to more basic science, Wen said.

"We're not in this for the money," he said.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology can be reached at +852-2358-8555 or at http://www.ust.hk/.

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