Nanotubes: What's the Prognosis

Electronics experts are now convinced the much-prophesised demise of Moore’s Law by 2018 is not going to happen. In fact, many are confident that not only will we see the continuation of this Law, but also an enhancement of it. Why? Because of the huge potential nanotubes could bring to the chip industry.

In this issue, we look at some nanotechnology developments. One example comes from the Netherlands, where scientists created a nanotube-based transistor that toggles on and off with the flow of a single electron. It’s said to be the first such singleelectron transistor (SET) to operate at room temperature. So why has that got the academics excited?

Well, conventional transistors require the movement of millions of electrons, and that naturally causes heat. But today’s transistor can only be shrunk to a certain size. A single electron switch, on the other hand, avoids these size constraints.

This is positive stuff for the future of electronics technology, but lurking in the background is a darker side to nanotube technology. It relates to a potential health hazard that could effect thousands of people in the electronics industry.

Because nanotubes are microscopic, they can infiltrate the human body via the lungs, skin, and digestive system. They are similar in structure to asbestos fibres, and we all know the latent danger of those and the high incidence of mesothelioma developing years after inhalation.

The action of microscopic nanotubes in the lungs holds similar risks. Once in the lung, it’s unlikely that the macrophages would be able to remove tissue damaged by them, especially when the invading nanotube had travelled beyond the lung surfactant. Recent research on mice confirms this fact.

So the dangers are there, and industry must react to ensure employee safety. The worry is that corporate attention and investment is currently mesmerised by the commercial potential of this very exciting technology. However, failure to spend money on employee safety may become extremely costly in the long run. One need only look at the damage wrought by asbestos.

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