CAMBRIDGE, England – Typically, a human hair is about 70 micrometers thick. The lead image for this article shows a human hair with the words Cambridge and Nokia written on it by Focused Ion Beam (FIB). The line width of each of the letters is 150 nanometers. The nanowires used by the team at Nokia Research Center Cambridge are as long as the letter i you see in the image, but more than three times thinner at 20-50 nanometers. To say that the team like working in miniature is a gross understatement.
Nanotechnolgy of itself isn’t something you’re going to see pop up on a mobile phone anytime soon. Broadly, the term refers to the field of applied science and technology whose unifying theme is the control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally one to 100 nanometers (one millionth of a millimetre). Can you even think that small? It seems so as the team in Cambridge is already well underway with their research into various aspects of nanotechnology and generating real, viable results too.
Offering a wide range of opportunities, nanotechnology promises ‘more for less’, offering new ways to “create smaller, cheaper, lighter, faster and more intelligent devices”. Aside from the research the team at Cambridge showed us, it is also working on technology that will repel dirt, water and oil and investigating ways to create new types of batteries using a flexible super capacitor structure, offering higher current and higher energy density than we see today. The battery’s structure is created using nanotechnology and the team are working on ways to make batteries which are both flexible and transparent.
This might all sound like the stuff of science fiction. Sure, much of it could be a long way off (10 years plus) but some of the results could be sooner than you might think. Nokia Research Center doesn’t work in a silo, either as the team is tasked with “delivering real results to the business”.
Depending on the type of technology, the transfer from laboratory to a device can take a number of paths. The research team work closely with both business operating units who can help refine the requirements and potential application of a new technology. This can then lay a foundation for a technology transfer, bringing it to life (and into our hands) in the process.
Business validation is a process which translates results from the research team into something which can be used. Within the NRC is the Advanced Systems Engineering team which takes technology from the lab and turns it into something usable. All in, there is a wide network of people involved. Whilst new technology might originate typically from NRC (the unit has contributed a significant proportion of the patents in Nokia’s portfolio of more than 11,000 patent families) anyone in the company can contribute an original idea.
Over the years the Nokia Research Center has been responsible for a wide range of technologies in use today, many of them forming industry standards, particularly around the work NRC has done with radio. Most recently we saw the Chinese continuous handwriting recognition technology which came out of the Beijing team. Go back 10 years to a time well before smart phones let alone sensors. It was the year 2000 when the NRC team started work on bringing sensor technology to devices and in 2002 the first magnetometer compass was developed. The team worked with an external company on the compass itself, but all of the ASICS design and functionality was delivered in house by Nokia scientists and engineers.
Today of course our devices come resplendent with a variety of sensors to make daily tasks and use cases easier to handle. In the future NRC’s same dedication to research, to solving genuine scientific problems and to helping generate industry standards everyone can benefit from will see us living in a very different technological world. One where technology no longer needs to be solid, where it will almost disappear into our environment and be more efficient and even more effective than it is today. Exciting, no?