Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Too Small to Fail

The U.S. Government is at it again...innovation that is, this time in the form of nanotechnology.

The U.S. Army is currently undertaking initiatives to improve logistical processes that involve ammunition, fuel, and food, and they are attempting to do this through the use of MEMS (mechanical extension of microelectronics), or what we could jokingly refer to as "micro-bots." Essentially, these "micro-bots" are really microprocessors and microsensors, with the ability to respond to changes in the environment, i.e. force, heat, acceleration, etc.

One application, of which there are many potential applications for this technology, is aircraft production. If these microprocessors can adjust, for example, the surface of an aircraft to control airflow and reduce aerodynamic resistance, then the demand for fuel could be decreased. This translates into lower costs, and more munitions and food could be transported to soldiers in the field. Obviously, this technology can be extended to private enterprise as well, and I can imagine FedEx would relish the chance to incorporate these type of microsensors into their fleet.

So, what exactly is nanotechnology?

Well, to give a watered-down explanation of nanotechnology. There are essentially two types, or fields, of research. The first is called "dry" nanotechnology, and the second is called, yes, "wet" nanotechnology. Although the technology itself is vast and complex, the difference between these two fields is easy to grasp. "Dry" nanotechnology takes already existing mechanisms and reduces them in size, and "wet" nanotechnology builds mechanisms at an already infinitesimally atomic level. Here is a great picture from Sandia National Laboratory of a mite strolling past part of a microsensor:

Mite-sized and smaller parts have made possible the development of Sandia National Laboratory's nuclear weapons microlock. (Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories Intelligent Micromachine Initiative;

When it comes to the use of nanotechnology in logistics, the applications are numerous, and go well beyond reducing wind resistance in aircraft. Here are just a few more brief examples: tagging stored inventory/supplies at ridiculous speeds, running flawless inspections on millions of perishable items, and even creating microscopic assembly lines while products are in transit to consumers.

I've heard that other countries are investing heavily in nanotechnology, Russia for example, has from time to time boasted about nanotechnology as a future industry. If you have any input on nanotechnology and companies or countries that are really leading the way, please post it below in the comments.

Source: Calvin Shipbaugh @ RAND Corporation.

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