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Nano Devices That Are on Sale Now

Nano-this and Nano-that: Nano prefixes seem destined to become as common as dot-com suffixes. While many startups are only talking about building devices with nanometer-scale elements--100 to 1,000 times thinner than a human hair--one is now selling actual products. NanoOpto in Somerset, N.J., has just unveiled a trio of optical components for use in fiber-optic networks.

NanoOpto's components are designed to polarize, split, and recombine the beams of laser light flowing through optical fibers. But they don't look like any lens or optical prism you've ever seen. Under a microscope, they could be waffles for hungry microbes. The rectangular shapes rising from the grid are only about 100 nanometers wide, or less than the wavelengths of laser light that they process. That's important, says NanoOpto Chairman Stephen Y. Chou, who's also a Princeton University professor, because sub-wavelength optical elements don't operate on the same principles as macro-size optics. So they don't have to be aligned as precisely as conventional devices. Chou expects this to create major savings for companies that build fiber-optic equipment.

How does NanoOpto make its teensy waffles? With a miniature waffle iron. Chou developed a method that essentially molds the pattern on a wafer four inches across, one wafer per minute, which then gets cut into thousands of components. Soon, the company will begin producing multi-tier waffles so one component can perform multiple functions. Britain seems poised to become the world leader in one of the most controversial areas of science. On Feb. 27, the House of Lords gave the go-ahead to research on human embryonic stem cells, the body's master cells, which have the ability to develop into any of more than 200 specialized tissues.

The House of Lords also gave its backing to the Medical Research Council's plans to create the world's first bank for newly created stem cell lines. And on Mar. 1, the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates embryonic stem cell research, awarded the initial licenses to scientists seeking to do therapeutic research using cells from embryos obtained from fertility clinics. More controversially, scientists licensed by HFEA will be permitted to clone human embryos, for therapeutic use only.

With a progressive attitude toward stem cell research and a clear regulatory framework, Britain may be able to lure some of the world's top stem cell researchers to its shores. Already, universities and charities are gearing up to provide millions of dollars in funding for stem cell research, which is thought to hold the key to developing treatments for a range of diseases including Alzheimer's, diabetes, and Parkinson's. The Wellcome Trust, an independent research charity, and Britain's Medical Research Council are now backing stem cell scientists, and each says it plans to boost funding. In addition to producing impressive quantities of seeds, sunflowers manufacture small amounts of rubber in their leaves. Now, researchers from around the U.S. have banded together in an effort to figure out how to ramp up the flower's rubber production.

Currently, almost all natural rubber comes from trees in Southeast Asia and Brazil. But for both environmental and economic reasons, growers in those nations are reducing production. The sunflower isn't an obvious replacement since only 1% of its dry matter is rubber. But that could change. Aided by a $2.5 million grant from the Agriculture Dept., a four-year project led by Calvin H. Pearson of Colorado State University hopes to increase the amount to at least 10% by genetically modifying the plant. Semiconductor experts have long predicted that microchips will one day replace everything from bar codes on commercial products to anti-counterfeiting watermarks on paper currency. That day is drawing closer, thanks to a joint research project at the University of Pittsburgh and Oregon State University that has pioneered a new form of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags--silicon chips a few millimeters in diameter, that can transmit data to a receiver. Dubbed product emitting numbering identification (PENI) tags, they are cheaper to make than traditional RFID tags.

At retail outlets, PENI chips would eliminate the need for clerks to physically scan bar codes. The tags would automatically broadcast the price to any nearby electronic receiver chips, along with info on shelf life and other desired tidbits. The tags could also provide homing signals so lost cell phones and other gadgets could be tracked. They could even be built into medical products, such as syringes, so there are never questions as to the contents.

Typically, today's RFID tags consist of a chip attached to a minuscule radio, with the chip recording data and the radio transmitting it. The two are mounted on the same piece of paper or plastic and cost 30 cents to 50 cents apiece. Sounds cheap enough, but that price is prohibitive for most retail applications. With the newer PENI tags, the radio is embedded directly on the chip, driving the price down to about 12 cents each for a small batch--or a penny in volumes of hundreds of millions. "We've had the technology to do this for a while. It has just been a matter of getting the cost down to make it viable," says Marlin H. Mickle, a professor at Pitt's School of Engineering.

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